The Trouble With Kids

Even the most adept managers may not be prepared for the rigorous demands of managing young employees.
Advertisement

On most weekday mornings a group of young people in their late teens and early twenties forms a ragged line outside the Northeast Food Service Division offices of Horn & Hardart Co. in New York City. They wait on Sixth Avenue for a chance to work in one of the company's 10 Burger King and 11 Arby's franchises in Manhattan and Brooklyn. For those who can pass a simple test of basic math skills, the jobs are usually there. By lunchtime in fact a new employee can be trained and serving sandwiches and french fries to customers, as a franchise manager supervises.

The length of the line varies daily. But it seldom disappears, because many of the new employees don't stay around very long and the need to replenish the ranks is constant. "When you hire a kid, you never hire just what you need," says Mike Bottu, operations vice-president of another Burger King franchisee, Creative Foods Corp., owner of 22 Burger King restaurants in the metropolitan New York area. "If you need 10 to cover lunch, you hire 6 to 10 more. You never know when 6 are going to quit."

On most weekday and weekend evenings another kind of line forms outside the doors of Spit, a punk-rock club owned by Patrick Lyons near Boston's Fenway Park. Once inside, the customers dance and drink under the watchful eyes of 30 employees, most in their twenties and all, says Lyons, genuine devotees of the "punk" subculture.

To work for Spit a prospective employee must undergo at least three interviews, each 30 to 60 minutes long, with Lyons and members of his staff. Every new employee is expected to master a 70-page manual of basic procedures, covering everything from whether workers can chew gum (they can't) to the most tactful way to deal with a customer who has just thrown up on himself. Individual job descriptions must be memorized and adhered to as well. The job description for bartender runs to 8 pages. "I firmly believe that you have to give young people a regimented, structured situation in which to work," says Lyons, who is 28. "Young people laek discipline. If you give them a long rope they will not only hang themselves but also hang you with it." Employee turnover at Spit is low, the waiting list of job applicants is long.

Diverse as their approaches and results seem, both Lyons and Burger King have evolved relatively suceessful methods of dealing with a problem that plagues many businesses: managing kids. Many discussions of how to manage employees assume that a business is dealing with people, whatever their age, who possess motivation, maturity, and a sense of responsibility in the work-place. These qualities can come from pure professionalism or can be a function of obligations an individual has outside of work, such as supporting children or meeting mortgage payments. To define the problem as one of managing kids is to focus on those young people who have limited cureer ambitions and in most cases no outside obligations to motivate them at work. A kid needs a job -- that is, a paycheck -- but not necessarily this one.

Putting kids to work is one of the greatest challenges confronting management in the United States: The unemployment rate for people age 16 to 24 is 18.25% -- more than twice the rate for older workers. And businesses in such fields as retailing, restaurants, recreation, day eare, und many types of manufacturing and wholesaling find that kids are the only workers they can afford to hire for many jobs.

Yet few business schools or consultants offer help in the munagement of young people. Experts feel that "as long as there's a big supply available, you can find people who meet your needs," says Ronald C. Pilenzo, president of the American Society for Personnel Administration.

The experiences of many businesses often prove that assumption wrong. Employers report that the young people they hire are consistently difficult to manage -- with four key problems:

* Because they haven't defined what they want to do in life, kids easily become bored.

* Because they lack experience, kids have surprising gaps in their knowledge and an exaggerated opinion of their own capabilities.

* Because they lack dependents and muy be able to live with their perents if they choose, kids have little incentive to keep a job and, therefore, to maintain the necessary discipline.

* In major metropolitan areas, at least, many young job applicants lack a strong work ethic.

To some extent the complaints have an all-too-familiar air of adult hand-wringing about the downfall of the younger generation. What many managers see as causes of problems with their young workers may in fact be the effects of poor hiring practices, a failure to understand how to structure incentives to appeal to young people, and a lack of structure and clearly defined goals for young workers.

Lyons argues that anyone can employ good workers by hiring more or less as he does. The key, he says, is careful interviewing. Spit and Lyons's other clubs in Boston look for "upscale employees" -- people Lyons thinks will ultimately go on to be successful in other fields, such ns law or commercial art -- and avoid people who themselves patronize nightclubs. He asks job applicants about hobbies and extracurricular interests such as music, then typically asks job seekers to state three short-term and three long-term goals "Having goals indicates a person is organized," Lyons says. Moreover, he adds, a person with goals is unlikely to steal, because he won't want to risk being caught and ruining his long-term prospecs. Lyons also probes for dishonesty in other ways: Long interviews enable him and his staff to probe for contradictions that indicate lying. And he orders a lie-detector test if he is still suspicious after an interview.

Even the most rigorous hiring practices won't ensure good performance unless the manager understands that incentives for kids frequently differ from those for workers with heavier responsibilities. Joe DellaMonica, president of Creative Foods, recalls the case of a young employee who he thought showed great promise. "A kid who goes into the fast-food business and sticks with it can be earning $25,000 a year by the time he's 25," says DellaMonica. "The best ones have an opportunity to invest and can make up to $100,000 a year, a few years ufter that. I told this guy what the opportunities were, and he said, 'Great. When can I start?' A few weeks later I saw him and he told me he'd quit. I asked him why and he said, 'I found out you have to work Saturday and Sunday nights."

Rick Mourey, 31, the owner of WMC Grinding Inc., a precision grinding company in Santa Fe Springs, Calif, recalls similar problems with some of his young employees. Mourey believes that he must provide a kind of parentul leadership even to those employees who are just a few years younger than he is, by encouraging them to pursue excellenee even if their ambitions aren't profoundly important to the company itself. Rather than discussing abstract principles when "all that these kids are interested in is getting a little Toyota truck," Mourey says, "you have to say to them, 'If that's what you want, then work for the best little truck there is."

A quasi-parental relationship may be one of the keys to successful management of kids, say many experts. Rick Beaudreau, a bartender at Spit, says a balance of closeness to and distance from employees is a key reason for Lyons's success. "He's almost like one of the guys, but he's not one of the guys," Beaudreau says. Lyons suggests two ways of making the paternal relationship with employees work. First, explain how to do a job even if the employee insists he knows how. "Young people say, 'Yes, I know that,' when they really don't know,"Lyons says.

Second, always explain why something is important even when it seems obvious. "It doesn't work with kids just to say, 'Do this because I say so,' " Lyons says. "If I just say to a floorman [an employee who ensures that order is maintained in a section of the nightclub], 'That's your station; stay there,' he'll stay until he sees a pretty girl nearby." But, Lyons goes on, if he explains to the employee that he (Lyons) could get sued by a customer who steps on a glass that the floorman wasn't there to pick up, "then he will do his job."

As in parenting, a key problem is remembering the limitations of kids while still demanding that they act as responsible human beings. Managers can easily err by giving kids too much special treatment. Particularly in organizations where the young or unskilled worker is the exception in a professional work force, managers often feel guilty because the kid hasn't "had the advantages" of the other employees and may manage accordingly. The results can be disastrous.

One consultant gives the example of a well-established financial services company almost brought to its knees by the actions of a 19-year-old mail clerk. Mail delivery was terrible almost from the day he arrived, and the boy was constantly loud and abusive, especially to female employees. "He was very rarely told to shut up," recalls the consultant. "A small portion of the company thought he was funny, and he sort of performed for them."

Cassette tape recorders, calculators, and other small objects disappeared, but managers concluded that people outside of the company were responsible for the thefts. Practical jokes annoyed the staff constantly; trash was dumped on desks, and pencil shavings were left in coffee cups. Some employees, convinced that the mail clerk was behind everything, attempted to force the issue. He was brought to the president's office and urged to improve his behavior. The warning had no impact. Finally a practical joke caused a valued female staff member to become hysterical. "I just can't stand it here any longer," she cried. "I actually don't feel safe in my own office." Shc announced that she was leaving the company.

The general reaction at first was, "Try to calm her down. See if we can talk her out of it," recalls the consultant. At first no one said, "We've got to fire the mail boy." But the chairman, who had joined the company just a few months earlier, saw the issue clearly. "This is insane," he said. "We're about to lose one of our most valuable employees because of the guy in the mail room. We've got to fire him." He fired the clerk. Practical jokes and petty thievery came to an abrupt halt.

"The managers in this company still felt that they had 'failed' this guy -- that they had somehow not been able to reach him," says the consultant. "But it's clear that the problem wasn't failing to appeal to the kid's sense of values, which he clearly didn't possess, but failing to set and enforce limits, to say what was and wasn't acceptable behavior. "

Says Dr. Herman Staples, a past president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, "A job has to have structure. It shouldn't necessarily be structured more for a young person than for other employees in a similar position, but you have to expect a young person to test it more. Not getting in on time is the most common way. And with money, whatever you give them, they'll want more. It's the same kind of conflict a kid has with his parents about his allowance."

Giving kids too much special treatment, at the expense of enforcing a certain level of discipline, is what Herbert Kleinegger feels sank his efforts to employ young people. Kleinegger took psychology and management courses a few years before he launched Jobert C.N.C. Machining Inc., in Pearl River, N.Y. "I had a vision," Kleinegger says about his decision to start his own business. "I thought I could train people for the industry. I would hire young employees, and in five years they would run the company for me and I would retire. I made speeches about working with the young."

Today, Kleinegger is deeply disillusioned. Of the 66 youths he has hired over the last four years, all but 4 are gone. In retrospect, he admits that when he hired kids he was so preoccupied with "giving them a chance" that he didn't exert the kind of discipline he might have exerted on older workers. In doing so, he wound up hurting both his business and the kids more than if he had readily fired them for such offenses as drug use and lateness. As Patrick Lyons puts it, "All too often people have problems with kids because they treat them as exactly that: kids."

While young employees need to be disciplined to meet their employer's expectations, they also need to feel that their boss cares about them. "A lot of adolescents really want a good relationship with an employer," says Mardell Grothe, a psychological consultant to the training program of the National Machining and Tooling Association. "But they want it to be democratic, collegial, the 'we're going to sit down and talk things over' kind of relationship. We've been in a lot of machine shops where the young people want to play radios. It drives the old-line bosses crazy, and they start thinking up all kinds of reasons why you can't play radios. They say it's unsafe or that it distracts you from your work. Now, there's no evidence I've seen that says it's unsafe to play radios while you work. The kids know that instinctively, and they resent the excuses. We tell the bosses that if they want to decide that radios aren't allowed, they can say so. But it's important to listen first. Otherwise you send a message that you don't care, and the kids will rebel."

Caring about young employees and being willing to define clearly both the job and the expectations inherent in it are crucial to managing kids, most psychologists seem to agree. But it is not always easy to accomplish this without being rigid or insensitive to the distinctions that do exist between younger and older employees. "A lot of entrepreneurs confuse control with structure," notes consultant Crothe. "Structure is good. It means laying out very clearly what you want and when you want it done and letting the persons react. Control is trying to dictate how it should be done from moment to moment. A good structure tells a person what you want done but allows that person some latitude in how he does it."

Last updated: Jan 1, 1983




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: