February 17, 2015 |

The Young & the Workplace

By Pamela Mills-Senn


Managing teen employees presents unique challenges

There’s no argument that teen employees can pose real challenges to pizzeria operators. They’re typically untrained, with little clue about how to behave in the workplace, interact with customers and get along with other employees. True, they may be a blank slate upon which you can write/train how you like, but sometimes this can seem less of an advantage and more of a hassle. In fact, says Art Snarzyk, owner of InnerView Advisors, a St. Louis-based recruiting, hiring and management consulting company, this is why clients often tell him they want to avoid hiring younger workers.

“But in reality, young people can bring energy, creativity and enthusiasm to a business,” Snarzyk says. “Properly directed, these traits can pay dividends to a business.”

There are other advantages teen employees bring, says Tara Fishler, CEO of Customized Training Solutions in New Rochelle, New York. They can be physically strong and may enjoy working late. They can also be eager to please — unlike seasoned employees who may exude a more jaded attitude. Their connection to other teens and social networking can bring in new business. But like anything else, how much you gain from teen employees depends on how much you’re willing to put into them.

“You must have a lot of patience to train them,” says Carmelo LaMotta, owner of LaMotta’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in Fort Myers, Florida. “You have to give them a chance. We have strict rules and we stick to them, but you also have to let them make mistakes so they’ll learn.”

Tony Lippold, owner of Tony Maronni’s Pizza in Sussex, Wisconsin, has the same attitude. He says his young employees want to do a good job, but they seem to avoid thinking for themselves over concerns they’ll make a mistake.

“I tell them that if they make a mistake, it’s only a mistake if they don’t learn from it,” he says. “Making them think for themselves is a struggle but it’s worth it for the bottom line.”

The key thing when it comes to teen employees is spending sufficient time on training, and not just on job-related skills, says Fishler. Teens need training in how to juggle priorities, customer relations, teambuilding and conflict resolution, since they may have challenges dealing with peers and customers, she explains.

Coach them about what to expect in your workplace, says Jan Ferri-Reed, consultant and president of KEY Group, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based speaking, training and assessment firm. Spell it out clearly, she advises. For example: “This is how I manage, this is our culture.” At the same time, avoid the autocratic approach.

“That has never been a good management style, but it’s especially bad when it comes to teens,” she says. “Explain the processes, why they’re in place and why they work, rather than just telling them to do it because you say so.”

Take time to appreciate teens, says Snarzyk. “More seasoned employees won’t need this as much but the young live for it. Throughout their youth, they’ve been ultra-sensitive to being accepted. Schedule some time to chat with them and to just check in and see how they’re doing. Show them you want to invest in them.”

Other suggestions include:

  • Assign them to shadow a more experienced employee, says Fishler. This fosters leadership among other employees and gives the new employee somewhere to go other than the top with questions or issues. But don’t have teens manage teens, she adds.
  • Teens are used to having and giving opinions, says Ferri-Reed. You may want to invite their feedback, but only do so if you’re willing to listen and act on it when appropriate.
  • Catch them doing something right and create opportunities for recognition, says Fishler.
  • Be candid where improvement is needed, but not brutally honest, says Snarzyk. Remember that today’s teens are used to being praised for everything, says Ferri-Reed, so they tend to wilt under criticism.
  • Assign them first to where their greatest strengths are as Lippold does. On slower nights he sends them to stations where they need improving, with shift leaders providing one-on-one training.
  • Be flexible. Hiring a lot of teens, having plenty of part-timers available, provides the ability for young workers to shift scheduling. “An inflexible work environment is the kiss of death regarding teens,” says Ferri-Reed.

This latter approach has made life easier for Lippold, who currently has 10 teenagers on the payroll. “One challenge is they all want off at the same time,” he says. “I’ve prevented a lot of this by hiring from two different high schools, so they have different days for prom, homecoming and other school functions.”

Successfully managing teen employees requires setting limits and expectations, holding them accountable (for example, Lippold and LaMotta both have a firm no-texting rule) and then checking and double-checking their completed tasks, says Lippold. A serious approach to work is necessary, agrees Snarzyk, but at the same time create an environment where a little bit of “play” is allowed. Lippold agrees.

“Most of all have fun with your teenagers,” he says. “They’re a wonderful way to stay young. Remember, we were all teenagers once.”


Hiring Teens

With little or no work experience, hiring teens can present a bit of a puzzle. Carmelo LaMotta, owner of LaMotta’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria, asks applicants to bring in their report cards, inquires about their activities — he likes to see if they play sports, cheerlead, or are involved in drama etc., since these kids tend to be more outgoing. He also checks their Facebook page because if he does hire them, they need to “reflect well on his business.”

Jan Ferri-Reed, consultant and president of KEY Group likes behavioral interviewing, as does Tara Fishler, CEO of Customized training solutions. This entails creating scenarios “Tell me about a time you had a conflict,” “Give me an example of when you took initiative,” or, “What do you think about how this issue was handled,” etc. This approach can provide insights as to the teen’s decision-making and ability to handle stress.

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.