Meet Me, Meet My Mom

Feature Story: As a new generation enters the workforce, fitness facilities are increasingly having to deal with helicopter parents.

Does the following scenario sound familiar? After interviewing a young college graduate for a front-desk position at your fitness facility, you get a follow-up call, not from the candidate, but from her mother. “I am calling to let you know what a great young lady Amy is,” the mother says. “She is very eager to start working, and I know she’ll do a great job. So what do you think?”

With the growth in fitness-specific curricula in colleges and universities, new graduates are becoming an even more important human resource for the fitness industry. What employers may not expect, however, is what, or rather who, comes with these new hires: their parents. The current generation of graduates, the Millennials, have entered the workforce with a different parental relationship from that of previous generations in that it tends to be more of a friendship or a partnership. This is because their parents, the Baby Boomers, have raised them in a more sheltered and supported manner (Howe & Strauss 2000). Unfortunately, some parents may take this support too far and become “helicopter parents.”

Collegeboard.com describes helicopter parents as those who “hover over their children, swooping in to fight their battles and make their decisions for them (College Board 2008).” The problem is not that parents are involved, but rather when and how parents step in to help, which may prevent their children from gaining experience in handling life’s challenges. This article describes a few ways in which helicopter parents might get involved in their children’s careers, and looks at issues that facility managers and owners must consider when recruiting, selecting and managing this new generation of workers.

Joined at the Hip

There are several societal reasons why researchers believe “tethering” has occurred between Millennials and their parents.

  • Families are smaller in size today, so parents are better able to focus their energies on each individual child, resulting in a higher level of interaction (Social Technologies 2007).
  • The Millennial generation is quite large (approximately 76 million), similar in size to the parents’ generation (approximately 80 million). Many Baby Boomer parents are familiar with the competition (in school, extracurricular activities and the workforce) that arises from having so many peers and are determined to give their children a leg up on their competitors.
  • Technology facilitates a modern, “maximized” lifestyle, in that people are rarely out of touch with one another. Many young adults “text” their parents several times per week, if not per day, so mom, dad and even friends are never far away, which means a Millennial’s support network is always present.
  • The cost of a college education is so high that more families are approaching it as a true financial investment, and some parents view their oversight of their children’s education and careers as simply managing the return on their investment.
  • These parents have had easy access to elementary- and high-school grade progress and been more involved with their children’s education as a result. While privacy laws prevent this from occurring at the collegiate level, universities are finding multiple ways to include parents in their children’s experience. Thus, for helicopter parents the expectation is that they’ll be able to continue this level of involvement after college.

Let’s look at three areas of parental intervention in the workforce that could impact you or your facility, along with ideas on how to handle them. Not all college graduates have such highly involved parents, but these are the typical behaviors seen among those who do.

Recruitment

It’s not at all new for some parents to steer their children toward one profession or another; what is new is helping the children to research specific careers (perhaps even doing the research) and to choose possible options. This can certainly be helpful, as parents can provide wisdom gained from their own successes and failures, and many students genuinely take parental advice into consideration. The disadvantage, however, is that too much assistance can hinder the students’ process of identity exploration and development. Simply put, students may not have the opportunity to fully explore on their own who they are, what they believe and what they’re interested in doing, which could influence (positively or negatively) their fit for a given profession. This means that your candidate pool will require a little more scrutiny as you recruit (and select) employees. Getting to the heart of a candidate’s motivations for a given career, organization and position will be key.

It is quite possible that during the recruiting process you will actually encounter parents, acting as “agents” for their children. More parents are accompanying their children to job fairs and are the ones engaging the recruiters, rather than letting the children do it. You may even encounter parents from your own membership, doubling the pressure. For example, a member who frequents your group exercise classes may try to convince you that her daughter would be an excellent instructor. It might be hard to stick to your guns, but it’s important to adhere to your standards and guidelines with regard to certification and experience.

Selection

You may also encounter helicopter parents during the selection process, acting as agents during the interview phase. A recruiter in North Carolina told Forbes.com that she’d “had a parent sit in the lobby and wait the entire 4 hours during the job interview. The girl introduced us to her mother, and there was no embarrassment. She felt it was acceptable behavior (Weiss 2006).” Some Millennials simply don’t understand why this could be perceived negatively, and surprisingly, neither do their parents.

After hiring, some parents continue to act on their children’s behalf by negotiating salary, benefits or other aspects of the job or work environment. One human resources professional described to HR Magazine an instance in which a job offer was revoked after a candidate failed a drug test: “Within 24 hours, his mother called me to say their family takes a lot of herbal supplements, and we shouldn’t hold this against him. Then she kept talking about what a good person her son was and how he could do great things for our company” (Tyler 2007).

As an employer of college students, I’ve personally had parents contact me with questions about job requirements, or next steps in career preparation after hiring. Some of these young adults are very focused on a desired outcome, such as negotiating a higher starting salary, and if that means having mom or dad help achieve that outcome, then so be it. You must decide if this type of familial leverage is something you are willing to deal with in your facility or department.

On the Job

It was once unheard of for a parent to contact his or her adult child’s employer to discuss performance reviews, promotions or raises—but no longer. Helicopter parents, used to intervening on behalf of their children during their primary and secondary education, have been doing the same thing at the collegiate level, for both studies and part-time jobs, and now they are doing it as their grown children enter the workforce. One parent contacted the chief executive of her daughter’s company to help arrange delivery of a surprise lunch for her daughter, and then proceeded to use the conversation as a personal networking opportunity (Belkin 2007).

The culture in your facility may not have room for parents as “extra employees.” What will you do if the father of a new personal trainer calls you, demanding to know why his son isn’t getting more floor time? Have a policy in place so that you can enforce it consistently.

Organizational Decisions

Every facility must determine its philosophy regarding the helicopter parent trend. How much parental involvement are you willing to accept during the hiring phase? How much once a young professional is on the job? Does your facility view parental involvement as a sign that a candidate would consider multiple viewpoints and collect relevant data when making decisions, or does it view this involvement as a reason to question a candidate’s ability to handle tough situations alone? This question is particularly valid for the fitness industry, where professionals will be making decisions that impact the health of others.

Clearly communicate your philosophy regarding helicopter parents and your preferred approach to handling them. Convey guidelines to candidates, employees and, when necessary or appropriate, the parents themselves. Communication should occur in all phases of personnel management—recruitment, selection and performance management. Use whatever channels are fitting for your facility (print, e-mail, Internet, intranet or social networking sites).

Just how often will you encounter helicopter parents in the workplace? It’s hard to say precisely how prevalent the issue is, but clearly parents are intervening with increasing frequency. The examples given are not isolated cases. The point is simply to be aware of this issue and create a plan to address it so that your recruitment, selection and performance management processes are as effective and efficient as possible. Your success with the next generation depends on it, as does the future of the fitness industry. l

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Christopher Arterberry, MS

IDEA Author/Presenter
October 2008

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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