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Companies let workers bring in parents

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, November 1, 2014 9:00 p.m.

When David Henderson was 10 years old, he spent a day with his mother at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California, getting a close-up view of her work as an information technology specialist. Twenty years later, the tables have turned.

Last November, Henderson brought his mother to LinkedIn’s Mountain View, Calif., offices so she could learn more about his job as a project manager there. As part of LinkedIn’s first Bring In Your Parents Day, Henderson’s mom got to meet his colleagues, tour the company’s 25-acre campus and take her pick of the free panini bar. Or Indian fare. Or local handcrafted Philz coffee.

“She works in more of a government workplace and we’ve got an executive chef that came from Mustards,” Henderson says, referencing the landmark Napa Valley restaurant where LinkedIn’s executive chef once worked. “It wasn’t something she could have imagined.”

On Nov. 6, LinkedIn will again roll out the welcome mat for its employees’ parents, and has persuaded more than 30 other companies to do so as well. Virgin Group, SAP, British Airways and advertising agency Leo Burnett are among those opening their doors on the same day, in a flip of sorts on the traditional corporate career visit for kids.

Other companies, such as Google and Northwestern Mutual, have started similar programs on their own in recent years, inviting parents in for welcome days or for open houses while their children are interns.

“It’s not like parents are popping in all the time for coffee, but I think it’s slowly becoming more accepted,” says Hannah Ubl, a consultant with BridgeWorks, a generational research and strategy firm. “There’s this moment where companies are like, ‘We’re going to start working with you rather than against you,’ and they’ve started doing this with parents.”

For years, companies have worried about the growing threat of an invasive species known as the helicopter parent. The hyper-involved moms and dads of the millennial generation were said to be showing up at job interviews, calling hiring managers on behalf of their kids and even complaining to employers about their children’s salaries.

Older managers often saw this dynamic as dysfunctional and a workplace burden, says Neil Howe, author of Millennials in the Workplace. So much so, in fact, that when he began predicting a decade ago that companies would one day have events like this, “everyone thought it was funny. It was utter disbelief.” A typical response? “Over my dead body.”

Yet now that the oldest millennials have been in the workplace for a number of years, several companies are starting to embrace employees’ parents as an asset rather than a hindrance. “The fact of the matter is it hasn’t been a problem,” says Rich Stoddart, CEO of Leo Burnett North America. “Look, if our employees’ parents appreciate the culture of the company and the kinds of things their children do, those employees are going to be happier and more connected and more loyal to our company.”

If there’s any common theme to why companies have started involving parents more, that’s it: Showing the workplace off to parents, and better communicating with them, could stoke higher engagement among employees and make them less likely to leave. “If their kids say they want to do something else,” Stoddart says, parents “might just ask, are you sure you want to do that?”

Some companies playing host to families are careful not to link the idea to millennials. LinkedIn, for instance, casts its effort as both an employee program and a branding exercise. Meanwhile, a Google spokesperson says its Take Your Parents to Work event, which began in 2012, is simply a fun way to share more about the company with employees’ parents, whatever their age.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, for example, told Fortune earlier this year that she writes letters to the parents of senior leaders on her executive team, and she even called the parent of one high-potential candidate for help persuading him to join the company. When the candidate tried to tell his mother he was going to take another job, she told him Nooyi had called and said he should work at Pepsi. “I had no choice!” Nooyi recounted him saying. “Can you imagine going home every day after that and a mom goes, ‘but you should have accepted that offer!’ ”

Northwestern Mutual has also discovered that cracking the door open to parents can have a payoff with potential recruits. Five years ago, the insurance company began coordinating Family and Parents Night across its local offices, inviting interns’ parents in to see where their children work. Michael Van Grinsven, who directs the company’s field internship program, says millennials’ mothers and fathers have played such a role in mentoring them professionally that “what we decided to do was embrace it.”

Fighting parents’ involvement, he says, would have been worse. “If we’d been resistant to it, they might have been resistant to their sons or daughters even joining us.” Now, the company has found ways to maintain that family involvement even after those interns become employees. Parents can receive e-newsletters that share updates about their kids’ work. They are also sometimes invited to recognition dinners.

“People used to say: Wait until millennials get to the workplace, the workplace is going to change them,” Van Grinsven says. “But the workplace is responding to them.”

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