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The Parent Trap

The pros and cons of hiring your parents
January 1, 1996

Entrepreneurs running family businesses hire their parents as consultants or employees for a variety of reasons:

Does the shift in power, kids playing boss to their parents, work?

"Rarely," contends Fredda Herz Brown, a family business consultant in Leonia, New Jersey.

"It's too easy to fall back into the role of child," agrees Michael O'Malley, a family business consultant in Chicago. "Most children don't feel they have 'permission' to confront their parents. When there is a problem with a parent employee, most children become paralyzed and don't do anything to correct the problem for fear of losing the parent's love or affection." If a parent doesn't do a good job, it's often extraordinarily difficult to criticize, reproach or even steer him or her in the right direction.

Family business advisors point out several other concerns that come with hiring a parent:

Patricia Schiff Estess is president of Working Families Inc., a New York City consulting firm that publishes the newsletter Working Families, and author of Kids, Money & Values (Betterway Books).

Best-Case Scenario

Despite experts' skepticism about this arrangement, it sometimes works. In one business Brown works with, the father stepped down to let his son take over the firm but stayed on as a consultant. His responsibilities in this role are specific and limited. "The father wants his son to have complete authority in the company. Although he's in the office daily, he moved out of the 'big office' so his son could have it," Brown says. "It's interesting, though, that the son felt out of place in his father's office. At the father's urging, he redesigned the office. Now he feels comfortable as the boss-and as his father's boss."

Adele Kaplan had an impressive career of her own, which included directing the New Jersey Small Business Development Center at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, before she started working for her sons. When she "retired" in 1988, Kaplan began working as a literacy volunteer teaching adults to read and coordinating a course in critical issues in world affairs at New York University in New York City. But she also had some free time. So she began helping her son David Liederman, founder of David's Cookies, in a number of different ways, including standing outside and ushering people into his cookie store in New York City. And when her other son, Bill, opened Mickey Mantle's Restaurant in the same city, Kaplan was there one day a week to greet patrons and answer mail.

Now her two sons have joined forces in a new venture, Television City, a TV memorabilia shop and soon-to-be restaurant across from New York City's Radio City Music Hall, and Kaplan is there twice a week greeting customers.

What does it feel like being your mom's boss? "We're totally confident that when Mom's in the store, customers will be treated well," says Bill.

"We're good together," agrees David. "When all the big issues are going wrong, we can laugh together over the dumbest things, like how we're going to sell six $19 pink elephants that nobody wants to buy."

Perhaps most helpful to the business relationship is that Kaplan doesn't believe in giving her entrepreneurially gifted sons advice. "They're entrepreneurs," she says. "I'm not." And besides, they already know her views on just about everything-"they have since they were 3!"

Guidelines For Success

Before embarking on a campaign to put Mom or Dad on the payroll, ask yourself some questions.

The consulting option also takes into consideration that a parent may not want to work full time. Part-time and off-site work are other creative options when hiring parents. One writer, for example, employs her homebound father, a former research scientist, to scour publications for her; he mails her clippings weekly.

If you can't answer these questions positively, proceed no further. As great an idea as hiring your parents may seem, it is difficult to overcome the psychological hurdles of this topsy-turvy relationship. And if it's going to jeopardize your personal relationship, it's not worth doing.

Contact Sources

Fredda Herz Brown, c/o The Metropolitan Group, 230 Ft. Lee Rd., Leonia, NJ 07605, (201) 461-7352;

Michael O'Malley, c/o Family Business Dynamics, 2102 N. Clifton, Chicago, IL 60614,(312) 477-0247;

Television City, 64 W. 50th St., New York, NY 10112, (212) 246-4234.