Note: Inc.'s Ask a 20-Something series offers sage advice for navigating all manner of workplace issues, from the perspective of a young employee.
Dear 20-Something: Last week, I received a strange phone call. It was from the parents of one of my young employees. They took turns berating me for my treatment of their daughter, which is obviously unprofessional and out of bounds. How do I make sure this never happens again?
I mean, just wow. That's astonishing behavior. My own parents have joked about things like this--my dad once memorably threatened to wade into a particularly toxic comment section of an article I'd written--but they're always very clearly joking. (Thankfully.)
But apparently, this is a thing. Back in March, Inc.com columnist Scott Mautz wrote about a New York Times survey of parents with children ages 18 to 28. A disturbingly high number--11 percent--said they'd "contact a child's employer if he or she had an issue at work." You read that correctly: If you put 10 of those parents in a room, at least one of them will think calling you is a good idea.
And it's not a good look for anyone involved. Your employee comes off as someone who still needs her parents to fight her battles for her. The parents come off as overprotective and overbearing, the exact stereotype that led to the "snowflake" reputation that somehow still plagues every single person in my entire generation. And you? Well, that depends on how you conduct yourself on the call--and how you handle the aftermath.
It sounds like the call caught you off guard, and I don't blame you. Hopefully, you were firm and polite, rather than reactionary and defensive (or, even worse, passive-aggressive). If so, congratulations: You've handled that excruciating interaction as well as anyone could expect. But once you've hung up and picked your jaw up off the floor, you'll need to take a moment to process. Take a look in the mirror. The call was certainly inappropriate, but that doesn't necessarily invalidate its message.
Once you've reached a calm place about the whole thing, you'll need to chat with your employee. Your knee-jerk reaction might be to get angry at her. Avoid, avoid, avoid that instinct. Coming down hard on her only says, "You're not allowed to discuss work with your family." And that just reinforces her negative view of how you treat her. Definitely not the message you want to send. Plus, she might not even know that her parents called you--and if she does, she's probably furious at them.
So, start by simply informing your employee about the conversation. Tell her that her parents crossed a line, but understand that it may not be her fault. There's a chance she might not actually have any significant issues with your management. Everyone needs to vent sometimes--even if they're generally happy at work--and her parents could have taken her comments more seriously than she intended.
Of course, there's also a chance that she's genuinely unhappy. If there's a legitimate basis for the complaints that prompted the phone call, you should talk with her about it. Actually, you should probably do more listening than talking. A healthy boss-employee relationship goes both ways. You should absolutely have expectations for her as a worker--and she's well within her rights to give you leadership feedback, too.
The one thing you don't have to worry about: asking her to chew out her parents for their incredibly inappropriate behavior. Odds are excellent that she'll do that on her own.
Unless, of course, they call again. If they do, please write back in.
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