Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
It’s undoubtedly true that some parents, somewhere, give their adult children excellent guidance on jobs and work life. But based on the letters I get at Ask a Manager, I can say with confidence that many, many parents are steering their kids oddly astray when it comes to navigating work life. Sometimes this takes the form of moms and dads offering truly terrible or dreadfully outdated advice. Other times, parents are actually interfering with their grown children’s work lives—even calling up their offspring’s employer, as a decade earlier they might have phoned a teacher to discuss their kid.
When it comes to advice, the most common type of parent misstep falls under the umbrella of gumption. It’s the idea that to get a job, you need to impress an employer with your persistence and resourcefulness, often by doing things that in other contexts would be considered aggressive or even creepy. One letter writer described a particularly common manifestation:
My parents still push me hardcore to job search by walking around to buildings with an armload of cookie-cutter resumes that list every job I’ve ever had (even my high school laundromat job from over ten years ago; I’m a VFX artist now), shove it at the receptionist, ask to speak to the hiring manager right then and there and if they tell me s/he’s busy, say “no problem, I’ll wait” and then just awkwardly loiter in their lobby until I am presented with the hiring manager—or much more likely if I ever tried this, forcibly removed.
For the record, while the idea of getting a job by “pounding the pavement” remains deeply popular among parents of twenty- and thirtysomethings, it doesn’t work in most fields these days, where employers generally want candidates to apply online and not show up with a résumé without an appointment for an interview.
My dad told me to say in interviews that I am “new to town, don’t have friends or family in the area, no social life, and am not looking to date or get married/have kids soon.” So they would know I don’t care about anything but the job and could work all the overtime …
But they get weirder:
My mum is insisting that the way to get a job is through social media … She’s tweeting companies in our area to tell them I’m looking for a job and asking if they have any vacancies. It’s very embarrassing. She’s tweeting them my full name, my age, location and the type of work I’m looking for. I’ve asked her to stop so many times, but she downright refuses and keeps doing it.
There’s also a whole category of bad parental advice rooted in the sweet but misguided faith that employers will surely be blown away by how impressive their children are:
When I had just graduated college (mid-recession btw), my parents insisted that I should apply to jobs that required 5+ years experience in a specific field and just put my SAT scores on my resume. That way they would see that I was smart, and decide to hire me and train me instead of hiring an experienced professional with the skills they needed.
One college adviser, who says she frequently works with students who are receiving “truly outrageous and terrible advice from parents,” describes one such parent:
The father … accompanied his daughter to our advising appointment to accuse me of sabotaging her job search because he thought entry-level positions were beneath her (she was 21 with no work or volunteer experience at all). He kept telling her to apply for mid-level positions because “that shows initiative and drive.”
Perhaps most troubling are parents who haven’t yet accepted that their adult children will manage their own professional lives, and who attempt to do it on their behalf. One manager reports:
I have frequently had young employees’ parents contacting me to call in sick for their child or to ask me why their child has been terminated/ask me to re-hire their child. I am absolutely frustrated with this.
These parents are doing their kids no favors. Not every employer will bother to ask, “Does your kid know that you’re calling us?” and instead will assume that the kid knows about and has condoned the parent’s interference … which will get them tagged as immature and out of touch with professional norms at best and difficult at worst.
What’s at play here, both with the bizarre ways parents intervene in their kids’ work lives and with the fact that so many offspring feel unable to demand that their parents stop? And why do so many parents have such bad work-related advice for their kids in the first place? It would be easy to think that parents of today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings are just dispensing outdated advice that worked for previous generations, but while that explains some of this—like the impulse to “pound the pavement,” which is obviously rooted in pre-digital job-seeking norms—it doesn’t explain all of it. And while many of these intrusions are surely rooted in classic “helicopter parent” anxieties, some of them simply defy explanation. Parent-child relationships are all so sui generis, so colored by specific personalities and history and emotions, that this is a particularly tough topic to advise on from the outside.
If you’re unlucky enough to be the child of parents who are incorrigible when it comes to intervening in your professional life, the most effective approach might be to limit how much information you give them. If you keep things vague (or, with some parents, relentlessly positive), they’ll have less to opine on and fewer opportunities to interfere. But if the worst does happen and your parent contacts your employer, the best thing you can do is make clear that you had nothing to do with it and that you recognize how inappropriate it is. For example: “I’m mortified that my mom emailed you! She means well, but of course she shouldn’t be involved in this conversation. Please don’t feel you need to respond to her, and I’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Ultimately, though, short of some certification for parents that allows them to competently advise their grown kids, here’s the obvious truth: All sides would be well served by parents agreeing to hold their fire when it comes to their children’s jobs.