Coaching Teens on the Job

Inexperience, self-doubt, transportation issues among managers’ challenges

By Dana Wilkie June 4, 2014

They’re young. They’re typically inexperienced. Many may not be old enough to vote or even drive.

They’re the teens in America who are eligible to work—roughly 22 million of them—and as summer approaches, managers may find themselves spending extra time training these adolescents, schooling them in workplace etiquette, and even coaching them through the anxiety and self-doubt that inevitably surface as teens begin what may be their first, regular-paying job.

In May and June of 2013, 994,000 adolescents ages 14 to 19 landed jobs, whether that meant dishing up fries at a McDonald’s, bagging groceries at the local market or leading activities for young children at a summer camp. Teens’ average earnings were $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage that year. For many of them, their previous work experience was limited to odd jobs like baby-sitting, lawn-mowing, dog-walking and delivering newspapers.

Now they’re in your restaurant, your office or your hotel, earning a steady paycheck and looking to you for guidance.

“Let’s not forget that we are molding our future workforce,” said Renée Ward, founder of Teens4Hire (T4H), an online career center. “New workers will require more patience, constructive criticism, communication, coaching and cheering on.”


Some teens—those who are emancipated or who have children, for instance—might have previous work experience and are likely to come to a new job with more skills and confidence than the average 14-, 15- or 16-year-old. It’s this inexperienced group that typically presents challenges for employers, especially employers that haven’t hired adolescents before.

Managers shouldn’t assume that inexperience or youth gives teens license to bend the rules. Younger workers might not have their own transportation and might be navigating the bus route or the subway system, but supervisors should still expect promptness and reliability.

“It may be necessary for a younger worker without reliable transportation to be upfront with his manager about the situation and see if some arrangement can be struck ahead of time,” said John A. Challenger, CEO of Illinois-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “If the teen is a good worker when he is on the clock, the manager may be more willing to cut that individual some slack.”

Regardless, “teens should understand the importance of attendance and being on time, just like everyone else,” Ward said.

Managers also should not expect less of their youngest workers just because of their age.

“I think sometimes adults underestimate the ability of teenagers,” Ward said. “Often, parents only see their child’s behavior in the home, which can be less than stellar. However, you take that same teen and put them in a responsible position, and they rise to the occasion.”

Ward offered the example of her son. He was 16 and a pretty sloppy dresser, she said, when he landed his first job working in the men’s department at Burlington Coat Factory.

“Not only did he start to dress more professionally, he advised men in their 40s and 50s about how to dress,” she said. “He earned higher ratings in customer satisfaction than older employees. He wanted to do a good job.”

The Learning Curve

The learning curve for young teens may be a bit steeper than for older workers, and it doesn’t help that teens are notoriously reluctant to ask questions or to press authority figures for clarification, Ward said.

“When it comes to issues of safety and client interface performance, bosses should make sure their instructions are really understood,” she said. “The principles of excellent coaching are a must here. The manager should set clear, realistic expectations of behavior—preferably in writing.”

Patty Ceglio, a Web-recruiting and HR specialist at Colorado-based, which helps people find seasonal jobs, pointed out that while many teens are likely proficient in computer technology, they may need coaching on other fundamentals.

“Have they been put in situations to test their verbal communication skills?” she asked. “Appropriate methods for problem-solving? Negotiating with co-workers? The importance of a first impression? Treating others like you would like to be treated? Asking for help in solving a problem? The lack of important critical-thinking skills may be where the employer will note more of a void.”

Give younger teens tasks that are incrementally more challenging, Ceglio advised, then change tasks, teams and projects to keep them stimulated. Supervisors should be aware, she noted, that their charges may have different learning styles, with some acquiring knowledge most efficiently by reading, others by listening and some by having a task demonstrated.

“Watch for peer leaders to emerge,” she said. “Keep an eye out for the ones who are hanging back as well. The extroverts may rise and shine. The introverts, who have just as much to offer, may require a bit more time. Challenge teens to think ahead: Give them a scenario and ask, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ Give them the chance to think on their feet, then perhaps add in what your standard operating procedure might look like to complete the lesson. This process may help develop critical-thinking skills and confidence.”

Said Challenger: “A hands-on approach, utilizing job-shadowing and mentoring, is a great way to accelerate the training process. While having someone their own age work with them is not a bad idea, new employees should spend time with workers of all ages to get the various perspectives of those in the workplace. They will all have different wisdom to impart.”

T4H offers an online job readiness certification program for teens, which requires that teens pledge to:

*Arrive at work ahead of their scheduled starting time.

*Abide by required dress code and hygiene standards.

*Maintain a positive attitude, regardless of the nature of the work.

*Abide by company rules.

*Submit to the authority of managers and supervisors.

The pledge includes reality checks like this one: “I know that customers are not always nice, and they can occasionally be rude and demanding. However, I also realize that customers are the most important part of our business and, without them, I would not have a job. Therefore, I pledge to provide the ultimate in service to every single customer and go out of my way to make each feel welcome and sincerely appreciated.”


Young teens—like any new workers—will make mistakes. The difference is that adolescents may be especially sensitive to constructive criticism and find it demoralizing.

“First-time employees are just learning the ropes. So, rather than being a hard-nose, [providing] positive reinforcement of good behaviors will help build their self-esteem, confidence and skill set,” Ward advised.

That said, she noted, teens should be held consistently accountable for their behavior. Consequences should be communicated clearly and delivered appropriately.

Said Ceglio: “Bad habits can start early—when a young worker sees others getting away with a behavior or inappropriately modeling a task. Employers can stay one step ahead of the game by setting up the fresh-faced, eager-to-learn teen with a buddy system and offering a strong, patient and attentive mentor.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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