De-Greening Teens

By Susan J. Wells Apr 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, April 2005 Programs geared toward recruiting and orienting teens to the workplace can help avoid serious legal and practical problems.

Four months ago, seven teenage employees struck it rich on the job—but their newfound income wasn’t in the form of salary: The teens shared a $400,000 settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against a Burger King franchise in suburban St. Louis.

Brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of the teens, the case stemmed from a series of incidents in which a restaurant manager subjected the girls—six of whom were high school students—to repeated groping, vulgar sexual comments and demands for sex.

The girls—who had never received training on how to make a sexual harassment grievance—complained to three assistant managers, two of whom were also teenagers. However, the young managers felt helpless to assist the girls because the alleged harasser was their boss as well, according to William Moench of Moench & Associates in St. Louis, who represented the teenage girls. Five months later, the girls finally figured out how to go over the boss’s head and file an internal complaint with the corporate office.

This case was one of a growing number of suits filed by teen victims claiming harassment on the job. (See “Teen Lawsuits” graph.) In February, the EEOC’s Phoenix office announced the filing of two more employment discrimination lawsuits involving teens. The suits involve sexual harassment of male and female teen employees, including same-sex harassment, at two different franchises of a national fast-food chain, according to the EEOC statement. No other information was available at press time.

Although the total number of such suits is not astronomical, it should raise concerns among companies that employ large numbers of teens. The reason: When faced with difficult situations such as harassment, many teens simply quit, experts say—leaving employers unaware of a serious management problem that can continue to cause legal liability and that has already driven away workers, thereby leading to increased recruiting, hiring and training costs.

Such legal and practical issues are the latest in a string of concerns related to hiring teens, say experts. For example, teens’ focus on seasonal jobs, frequent job hopping and high turnover create additional challenges for employers.

“Teenage workers far too often accept jobs but never stay on the job long enough to develop important work skills, to know what a good job looks like or to get really good at their job,” says Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies, an employee and customer loyalty consulting firm in Chesterfield, Mo. “This negative job pattern tends to repeat itself, and it can cause challenges for employers.”

But employers can overcome these legal and practical challenges by implementing specialized and more-effective hiring and orientation procedures—especially for teenagers hired to supervise their peers. The time to prepare for those changes is now, before the summer hiring season arrives and brings—as it does every year—an additional 2 million young workers into the labor force.

Teens’ Vulnerability, Employers’ Responsibility

Teens are particularly vulnerable to legally charged situations, employment experts believe, because they typically lack knowledge about employment laws and are inexperienced with workplace norms, expectations and behaviors. On top of that, in many industries their managers may also be young, with little in the way of management experience under their belts to help teach their teen subordinates.

This places a tremendous amount of responsibility on a teen’s first employer, suggests Patty Ceglio Bishoff, coordinator of the Seasonal Human Resources Association, a membership group of HR and operations representatives from national parks concessioners, resorts, cruise lines, ski areas, theme parks and other hospitality and entertainment employers that employ large numbers of teenagers.

“Employers who are willing and able to take on kids with little or no employment history have an enormous responsibility, and a unique opportunity, to instill strong and ethical standards in these young workers,” says Bishoff, who is also director of operations for Gardiner, Mont.-based, a national online recruiting site for seasonal and career positions.

Lynn Clements, an EEOC attorney and special assistant to the vice chair in Washington, D.C., agrees that a teen’s first employer has a special challenge in getting him to understand how the workplace operates. “We see it frequently—teens don’t have a real firm understanding of their rights and responsibilities in the workplace,” she says. “We feel the best way to reach teens is through their first employer.”

To that end, the EEOC recently launched an unprecedented national outreach and public education initiative called Youth@Work to help teenagers understand their rights and to help employers better orient their teenage employees to workplace rules. There’s even a questionnaire employers can give to teens that tests their knowledge on anti-harassment and antidiscrimination laws.

Screening Teen Applicants

Because of their inexperience, screening teen job seekers requires special insights, experts say. “It really requires a higher level of skill from the interviewer,” says Martels, a former vice president of HR for a grocery chain. “Teenagers are a different breed, so it becomes a kind of detective game.”

By asking the right questions and picking up on other cues, employers can discover predictors of behavior on the job. For example, Martels recommends perking up observation skills during the interview.

“HR should watch body language, dress, grooming and neatness, responsiveness, communication, eye contact, gestures, initiative and a sense of kindness—do they smile, for instance,” he says. “All in all, pay close attention to how they act, talk and present themselves.”

To gauge responsibility and success on the job—especially for teens being considered for supervisory positions—employers often are more inclined to hire teens who are doing well in school, says Renee Ward, founder of online teen career and recruitment site, based in Huntington Beach, Calif.

In addition, employers should consider the type of classes teens take, she says. “Teens with a rigorous academic program are preferred.”

Employers should also ask whether the teen has participated in school-sponsored activities, such as clubs and sports. This demonstrates an ability to get along with others, Ward says, as well as a willingness to accept rules and follow instructions from authority figures, which is particularly important for potential teen supervisors.

Asking if a teen has participated or volunteered in community activities can give employers a sign of a teen’s ability to serve others—“and this experience provides them with insight about how a teen might serve customers,” she says. Volunteer work illustrates a level of maturity in that the teen has sought and built positive relationships and is willing to go above and beyond what’s required in school.

To judge maturity, behavioral questioning should try to elicit responses that describe confidence, judgment, accomplishment, decisiveness and team skills.

“For example, if a teen is or was a club organizer or president, that indicates that they have experience in a leadership capacity,” she says. Graph 1“Hiring managers can then ask questions about how well the teens did in this role. Were they persuasive in getting others to join? What was their leadership style? How did they set goals and resolve conflicts?”

Recruiters should give adequate weight to soft skills when dealing with potential supervisors—especially those who are teens or will be managing them. Atlanta-based quick-serve chicken restaurant chain Chick-fil-A Inc., for example, weighs store manager candidates more heavily on character, drive and people skills—sometimes even more than previous restaurant experience. Company recruiters base the decision to place someone in a position of leadership on the answer to one key consideration: “Would I like to have my son or daughter working for this person?”

In addition, to weed out potential troublemakers for any position, employers should discuss work requirements, such as dress code, appropriate conduct, attendance, co-worker respect and customer service. Martels says HR should watch for body language—for example, attentiveness and nodding in agreement indicate that the candidate likely will perform according to the company’s workplace requirements. Then, ask confirming questions, such as “Why do you think these things are important?”

“Teens may not have the right answers, but it is more important to observe how they think through the answers,” he adds.

While most employers save this discussion for after a new hire joins the company, Ward and Martels believe there’s nothing wrong with taking a proactive stance on workplace-conduct issues.

“You can refer briefly to your adherence to workplace rights and wrongs to get the point across,” says Martels, “by saying that you’re an employer who goes by the law.”

In addition, Martels suggests that employers ask the following questions of teens applying for a job in which they will supervise other teens:

  • What distinguishes a great employee from a good one?
  • If I were to talk with your previous manager or teacher, what would he or she say about you? Your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What do you take pride in?
  • Tell me something valuable you’ve learned that you bring to a job.
  • What’s the best idea you’ve ever “sold” to a teacher or supervisor?

Again, the goal is “to get a sense of their thinking,” says Martels. For example, if a teen can’t provide much more than an “I don’t know” or “nothing” answer to any of these questions, or if answers seem forced rather than genuine, that would be an obvious red flag, he says.

Take Extra Orientation Steps

Once a teen worker is hired, make the orientation process more detailed than you would normally do for an adult employee. Pair a teen employee with one of your best performers to mentor the new hire.

Conduct anti-harassment training with all new hires, paying special attention to your youngest employees. Make sure they’re aware that the buck doesn’t stop with their immediate supervisor, and that they have multiple channels to air potential problems.

Courts may view young workers with a more protective stance when it comes to the issue of harassment, granting them more leeway when they fail to use your company’s harassment reporting procedures. While it may be possible to avoid liability caused by a supervisor’s harassment by proving that your organization has sound policies and practices in place to prevent harassment, those policies and practices won’t shield you if young employees believe that filing a harassment complaint threatens their job or is a waste of their time.

“Most teens—and this includes both boys and girls—would quit rather than make an issue of harassment or hostile conduct,” believes Dale Clifton, founder of Teenage Workforce Success, a teen-worker development consulting firm in Crawfordsville, Ind. Coaching and managing involves a continuous review of the fundamentals of the game and a constant reminder of the basics that make the workplace operate efficiently without major problems, he says. Checking in often with teen workers can help prevent trouble.

“Having regular, short associate meetings should include discussions of harassment and hostile conduct issues from time to time,” says Clifton. “Posting them as rules on the wall alone will not alleviate the problems.”

Meanwhile, be on the lookout for constant improvement to existing orientation methods, suggests Martels. After each summer or seasonal employment season, follow up on the effectiveness of screening and orientation methods as a way to judge practices and improve them for the next year.

Graph 2To get feedback, Martels recommends conducting a short follow-up survey about the orientation. While such surveys could be used with any workers, they are especially important for teens because the workplace orientation program was likely their first.

“Teens don’t like to ask questions because they don’t want to appear ‘stupid,’ ” Martels says. “So the follow-up survey makes it safe for them to communicate and helps the employer know if there needs to be additional follow-up” or modifications to better reach this age group in its workforce.

Martels recommends asking the following questions:

  • What elements were most useful to you?
  • What critical elements were left out?
  • What information should be included in the future? ›
  • Was there enough time?
  • Did the orientation prepare you for your job and role?
  • What should you have known?
  • What did you most want to know?
  • Were employees and supervisors helpful to you when you asked questions?
  • Were the materials helpful to you?

Modify Your Anti-Harassment Policies

Employers may need to consider modifying their anti-harassment policies for the teen audience. EEOC attorney Clements recommends that employers review and craft their policy materials for teen-friendly presentation. She suggets the following strategies:

Keep it short. “Kids like short and sweet,” Clements notes. So use bullets to organize information in your policy—rather than long sentences and multiple-page passages.

Expand it to alternate media. Instead of only relying on words on paper in a handbook, presenting your policy in a different format—say, in a video or in role-playing training—might help teens better grasp its meaning.

Repeat it. “Repetition is a good teacher,” she says, so tactics such as posting the policy in multiple locations and including it as a notice in pay stubs can increase younger workers’ attention to your message.

“Such ideas and suggestions may simply resonate better with younger employees, and that ultimately improves the message,” Clements says. “Even minor modifications can go a long way.”

Susan J. Wells, a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area and a contributing editor of HR Magazine, has nearly 20 years of experience covering business news and workforce issues.
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