Is a Helicopter Spouse or Parent Hovering Over Your Workplace?

As an employer, can you insist on an employee talking for himself rather than you listening to input from his helicopter spouse or parent? Thankfully, the answer is “yes”.

You do not need to allow an applicant’s parent or spouse to fill out the application, set up the interview, attend the interview, ask questions by text during the interview, call to ask how the interview went, or insist on knowing the salary and terms of employment when the job is offered.

In fact, if any of these occur when you are considering a job candidate, I would have to question your judgment if you hired that candidate without seriously pondering his/her maturity to actually handle a job at your company.

You are not alone if you have had to fend off interfering parents as an employer.

In 2007, the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University published a survey of 725 employers that found that nearly a quarter had encountered parental involvement in the hiring process and the early stages of workers’ careers.

Within that group of employers, more than 30 percent reported parents submitting a résumé for their children; 15 percent reported fielding complaints from a parent when the company didn’t hire their child; and nearly 10 percent said parents had insinuated themselves into salary and benefit negotiations.

New York Times, June 21, 2017.

Similarly, once an employee is working for you, you should let the employee be his/her own mouthpiece. Draw some boundaries and insist that all interactions regarding the employee’s performance, salary, attendance, misbehavior, and termination be conducted only with the employee. If the employee says he/she prefers her helicopter spouse’s involvement, say “no” and remind the employee that if he/she can’t speak for himself/herself, the employee may not be professional enough to work for your company.

I bring this up because after 30 years of employment law practice, I often think there is nothing new under the sun. Granted, Amarillo tends to lag behind nationwide trends. But for the first time this year, I have encountered this helicopter family problem frequently enough that I am recommending a new written policy to my clients along the lines of “ABC Company will discuss job-related matters only with the employee himself or herself and not family members, significant others or friends.

Sadly, the advice requested recently of me that prompted me adding this policy to employee handbooks was not pushy parents—it was helicopter spouses (or fiancées or significant others).

Several times this year, employers have reported to me that a new employee said he couldn’t even “sign a handbook acknowledgment until my wife approves”. Another employee wanted his girlfriend at a disciplinary meeting where he was getting written up for workplace misconduct. The husband of an applicant told an employer that his wife was too busy to interview, but the husband knew his wife/the applicant well enough that he could answer the employer’s questions.

To some small extent, I understand the occasionally  irrational investment that spouses have in each other’s careers. When my husband first started teaching high school science many years ago, I often hounded him to chat with school administrators when we were at football games in the name of “networking”. That is how it works in my business, but a good friend pointed out to me that teachers don’t get promoted (unless they want to become principals, which my husband definitely does not). Teachers just become better teachers, through their own hard work, training and with any luck, wisdom shared by experienced teachers.

That lesson has stuck with me. People become better employees through their own efforts or, with any luck, the help of a workplace mentor. They do not become more confident, more assertive, more professional, better able to handle confrontation, and more mature because their helicopter spouse or mommy does all the talking for them at work.

So now it seems to be incumbent on employers to help employees resist the temptation of abdicating their responsibility to steer their own careers by enforcing a helicopter-free workplace policy.

Of course, if you do adopt a policy limiting your interactions to employees only, you may have to make a couple of exceptions. If you employ teens under the age of 18 or adults with disabilities who have a legal guardian, there may be times you need to deal with the parent or guardian.

Likewise, if an employee is injured or seriously ill and there are absenteeism or benefits issues to be discussed, the employer may need to communicate with a family member.

Finally, if the employee is a union member, he/she may be accompanied by a union representative to disciplinary and other meetings. But because unions are so few and far between in the Panhandle of Texas, that situation rarely arises for most local businesses.

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