‘In Loco Parentis’ Management: Combating the Overparenting Problem with Millennial Employees

This article is the second in a series of six. It is excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan.
A senior private equity managing director told me of a parent calling to complain that her son was working too many hours. I asked how he reacted to this call. “I just listened and tried to be polite. I didn’t tell her that her son was going to make ten thousand dollars less for every minute she kept me on the phone. But I did the math in my head.” He went on, “This is ridiculous. For one thing, my parents never in a million years would have considered calling my boss when I was in my first job out of college. I can’t even imagine that. They didn’t even know my boss’s name. And I would have been mortified if my boss got a call from my parents.”
It’s become almost cliché to say that the Millennial generation is over-parented. But they are. And that is a fact with which managers today must grapple. “This is an outrage,” some managers say, “I shouldn’t have to deal with their parents at all.” On the flip side, some managers simply accept that their young employees will be accompanied and assisted by their parents throughout the early stages of their working lives. I don’t think you should accept that. You hired the employee, not the parents. But you do have to deal with it.
One nurse manager on a very busy hospital floor told me, “My approach is simple: sink-or-swim time now, kids. Just let the real world sort them out.” The problem is that if you take a sink-or-swim approach with Millennial employees, they are likely to sink; or go to the shallow end and play; or swim off in their own direction; or get out of the pool, walk across the street, and go work for your competition. And when you hire a replacement, that person is likely to bring his or her parents along too. The irony is that if you hire a Millennial who is not close to his or her parents, you may be sorry. Among today’s young workers, those who are closest to their parents will probably turn out to be the most able, most achievement oriented, and the hardest working.
In my seminars, I tell managers that the way to deal with the over-parenting problem is to take a strong hand as a manager, not a weak one. Your Millennial employees need to know that you know who they are and care about their success. You need to make it a priority to spend time with them. Guide them through this very difficult and scary world. Break things down for them like a teacher. Provide regular, gentle course corrections to keep them on track. Be honest with them so you can help them improve. Keep close track of their successes no matter how small. Reward the behavior you want and need to see, and even negotiate special rewards for above-and-beyond performance in very small increments along the way.
When I describe this approach at seminars, at least one manager will remark, “This sounds a lot like parenting. Are you saying that we should manage these young upstarts as if we are their parents?” I’m afraid the answer I’ve come to is yes, at least sort of. Let’s put it this way. You can’t fight the over-parenting phenomenon, so run with it. Your Millennial employees want it. They need it. Without strong management in the workplace, there is a void where their parents have always been. Step into the void. Take over the tutoring aspects of the parental role in the workplace without taking over the emotional part (at least mostly).
Do be careful, and don’t get carried away. The worst thing you can possibly do with Millennials is treat them like children, talk down to them, or make them feel disrespected. Millennials are used to being treated as valued members of the family, whose thoughts and feelings are important.
Remember, Millennials have gotten more respect from their parents and elders than any other generation in history.
I call this approach ‘in loco parentis management.’ In loco parentis, a Latin term that means “in the place of a parent,” typically is used to refer to the position of an institution (usually a school) charged with the care of a minor in the absence of the minor’s parent. Here’s what this means:

  1. Care about your young employees.
  2. Don’t pretend to be their best friend.
  3. Give them boundaries and structure.
  4. Help them keep score.
  5. Negotiate special rewards in very small increments.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]; you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website.