Managers can adapt to teen employees

Teen workers can be a boon to small businesses, but some owners and managers make the mistake of treating them like younger versions of adult workers.

They’re not, in many cases. Teens who grew up in the digital era might shun paper-based information. And they might have some attitude, wanting to know the why behind a command and what’s in it for them, experts said.

“I’ve talked to so many managers who are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know how to supervise and manage teens: All they need is a good swift kick in the you-know-what,’ ” said Ken Whiting, a consultant who specializes in teen employment issues.

“So then I ask, ‘How’s that working for you?’ because the point is, it’s not working so well,” said Whiting, who employs dozens of teens himself as president of Whiting’s Food Concessions in Santa Cruz.


High turnover among disengaged teen workers — whether it comes from being fired or quitting — costs small businesses money and productivity, he said.

And teens sometimes have entry-level positions in small businesses that put them in direct contact with customers. So it’s important they represent the company well.

At the Mulligan Family Fun Center in Murrieta, most of the 90 employees are ages 16 to 22, said the general manager, Mike Manassee.

The 8-acre amusement park, one of three operated by a family-run business, has made several changes to better engage teen workers.

“It’s easy to be a fuddy-duddy,” Manassee said. “ ‘I walked uphill to school both ways while running from dinosaurs’ makes for great stories, but they don’t show you understand how the world has changed.”

To adapt to the teens’ world, he quit posting paper schedules on a bulletin board. Now the schedules are online where workers can check them any time of day. In addition, an online forum was established for workers to post or trade shifts.

Manassee likes teenage employees because they are often free on nights and weekends when he needs more help. And the jobs, which pay modestly, require no experience.

But a downside is that teens can be more prone to injury because, although they may be eager to please, many are not physically or mentally mature. And their judgment is not always the best.


Also, teen workers can be vulnerable to sexual harassment, sometimes from teenage managers. This could lead to legal complications.

“Heightened awareness is required,” said Cynthia Elkins, principal at Elkins Employment Law in Woodland Hills. “You are dealing with people who do not possibly have the maturity level to understand appropriate from inappropriate workplace conduct, and how to create boundaries.”

Employers are also at risk if they don’t take seriously laws that pertain to teen employees. But the rules can make it tough to hold on to these workers.

Fresco Community Market, which opened in January in northeast Los Angeles, had several teenage workers but is down to one, partly because of regulations concerning work hours. Also, there are restrictions on what tasks teens can perform. For example, people under 18 can’t work as cashiers in establishments selling alcohol.


Still, Fresco’s Community Markets Inc.'s president, Jon Murga, wants to mentor more teen workers. After all, he started his career as a teenager at the now-defunct Shopping Basket grocery store in Cypress.

He did run into some unexpected challenges in dealing with today’s teens.

“What we found with this generation is they don’t wear watches, so we had to put wall clocks everywhere,” Murga said. “It was hilarious — they would go on break and they’d just stay on break.

“It’s a very — for lack of a better statement — interesting generation.”