How To Effectively Manage Teenage Employees

Does the thought of managing teenage employees fill your heart with dread?

It doesn’t need to. Teenagers are full of energy and creativity, and if you can channel that in a positive way, they are a huge asset to your business. As with any employee, your key to success will lie in communication, motivation, and the proper use of guardrails.

Here are some strategies for effectively managing teenage employees:

Clear Communication Comes First

When it comes to managing your teenage employees, start with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. They need to know what professionalism is, and what you expect. They likely do not have the job experience to understand what many of us now assume and infer when we take a new position. This is part of being clear with how you communicate.

1. Explain your reason logically and briefly.

According to Laurence Steinberg, PhD, communicating with teenagers isn’t as difficult as you think. While they might not have the knowledge and experience that you have accumulated over the years, they do have highly sensitive “B.S.” detectors. They have the ability to see through bad logic.

In other words, Steinberg says, you can’t tell teens to do something just because you said so, using force, but you must provide a logical reason.

Also remember that if you over-communicate, teens may start to tune you out. Be succinct and to the point, never talking down to them or patronizing them, or you risk having them learn to ignore you.

2. Talk directly to your employees.

Without being overly brusque or overbearing, speak directly to employees. Whether you are relaying rules, tasks, praise, or correction, speak to them directly. Don’t use a roundabout way of communication. Avoid piles of paper and signs. Those get tuned out.

Speaking directly to your employee does two things: you know your message is undiluted and understood, and you are also helping your teenage employees grow as workers. They need the experience of communicating directly with their manager, particularly in a culture that uses text messaging and indirect communication.

By talking directly to your employees, you give them the gift of an ability to talk to managers for their future career.

3. Outline your expectations.

Tell your teenage employees in clear language what you expect from them, both in what they should do and what they should not do. This should happen during the initial hire, during any employee reviews, and regularly throughout the week.

Tell them what you expect from them in regards to proper behavior. Tell them specific work that can always be done if they have downtime at the business. Tell them what needs to be completed this week, or this day. Instead of telling them to “be polite”, tell them how to be polite. They might not actually know. This is how they learn professional behavior and the habit of keeping themselves busy while at work.

When it comes to outlining your expectations:

  1. Don’t assume your teenage employees would know that they can’t be on their smartphone while working. They’ve grown up with it and unless you make it a clear rule, there’s a good chance they don’t see any problem using it.
  2. Don’t assume your teenage employees know they should not socialize with friends when they are to be working.
  3. Don’t assume they’ll find work to do if there are no customers at the counter.
  4. Don’t assume they know what appropriate dress is.
  5. Don’t assume they know what appropriate language or attitude is.
  6. Don’t assume they know to show up on time or to call in if they are sick.

Tell them what you expect. Don’t assume they know.

Find What Motivates Teenage Employees

Every teenager is different when it comes to motivating them. Some are self-motivated, and you will merely need to point them in the right direction before they are off and running. Others, though good workers, need to be told specifically what you want them to do and when you want it done. Despite these differences, though, there are a few key motivators that all teenagers will respond to.

1. Show what’s in it for them.

Every employee wants to know what’s in it for them, and your teenage employees are no different. By helping them see “what’s in it for them”, you can help avoid bad attitudes and habits.

Money, of course, is a great incentive. Financial bonuses or pay raises based on performance clearly show what’s in it for them. But there are other incentives, too, when money isn’t always an option.

  • Prizes, which can be anything from an actual item to a paid day off.
  • Promotion and a change in job title.
  • Education and training, particularly if it can be used for future job experience.
  • Public recognition for a job well done.
  • Input into things that matter. For example, if your teenage employees meet a goal, reward them by letting them choose the next uniform shirt.

Incentives work best when they happen now. Teenagers aren’t patient, and they don’t want to wait until the end of the week or month. Be ready to reward now if you want to see them respond immediately. Telling them they’ll get a prize in a week is much less effective than giving it to them right then and there. Immediacy in reward is its own motivator.

2. Let them know their voice is heard.

Teenagers want to know that they have a voice. They pride themselves on being individualistic, and have strong opinions. Give them a chance to share thoughts and ideas about the workplace, and put into place a system for valid ideas to actual happen. Get their input on:

  • Window displays
  • Scheduling practices
  • Products
  • Social media marketing

By opening the door for input, you may find an employee who has a creative streak or a skill you weren’t aware of. Give them duties that fit those skills, and watch his or her self-motivation skyrocket.

Whether you use a suggestion box, meetings, or a break room chart where employees can vote on an idea, success with this will mean providing a format to safely share ideas and vet them.

3. Let them know they are safe.

Teenagers need to know they are safe. They want to know they will not be bullied, threatened, or embarrassed by other workers or by management. While you still need to enforce rules, it is important that you do not use public shaming. Shame and humiliation de-motivates employees in the long run.

Let your teenage employees know you have an open door. Provide a way for them to share ideas safely, even if this means anonymously.

4. Show them you care about them.

Teenagers want to know that they matter. As their manager, you are a role model and a different influence in their lives than parents or teachers. You have the unique ability to help them learn what it takes to do well in their future careers.

Help them with resumes. Put them in touch with career counselors or internship opportunities. Help them build a network within your own network. Help them discover skills or abilities they aren’t aware they have. Give them a chance to flex their own “work” muscles by giving them leadership opportunities right there at work.

One huge caveat: even though you care about your teenage employees, you must remember that you are their manager and not their friend. Maintain that distinction. When a manager disciplines or says “no”, it might sting but most employees will get over it. When a friend does the same, it feels like betrayal. That’s not as easy to get over.

5. Learn To Be Flexible

Teenage employees usually fit work around their school and summer schedules. They are not adults in for the long-haul career, even if they are full-time. While you may not be able to honor every request for weekends off in the summer, be willing to consider them within reason.

Their friends, birthdays, school events, and sports are incredibly important to them; these are the things that build the person of tomorrow. Their work life should not always rule over their social life, and showing reasonable respect to teenage employees in this area goes a long way towards motivating them. No one wants to leave a job where the boss treats you well.

Dealing With The Challenges

Every generation of teenagers has its quirks, and the current generation is no different.

Today’s teenagers need face time in order to feel like they are not a “cog in the wheel.” They need to feel that they are important.

Additionally, they have been highly supervised their entire lives, meaning that they expect you, the manager, to continue the practice. Many will not arrive at your doorstep with the ability to see what needs to be done; they will need you to tell them what to do and how to do it. They have not always been used to the kinds of work other generations have done, and so you will need to start at square one in training them.

Add to this the fact that attention spans are shorter, and you have a group of workers that quickly grow bored with the need to be directed. What’s a manager to do?

1. Keep teenage employees occupied.

Don’t give them a chance to get bored. Time passes more quickly when we’re busy, so you’re doing them a favor.

Provide a list of tasks, in the order of importance (i.e. the first task is the most important, and so on), of things to do when other work is done or when there are no customers in the store. Unless your teenage employees are highly motivated to find what needs to be done on their own, always keep a list of what they should do next and verbally communicate it to them regularly.

2. End poor behavior immediately.

If you find that your teenage employees are behaving poorly (or a customer lets you know), deal with it immediately. Otherwise, it becomes a habit and your teenage employees will get the idea that you’re not all that serious about your policies on using phones or having friends in for visits.

Remember, though, that you should handle it one-on-one, in private, and not shame them in front of other employees or customers. Give them a chance to save face in a private meeting while directly letting them know what they did wrong, why it has to stop, what you expect from them from here on out, and what will happen if the behavior continues.

3. Know the difference between willful behavior and immaturity.

Not all teenagers of the same age are at the same maturity level. What might seem like bad behavior might not be willful at all, but immaturity or not knowing any better. For this reason, the above method (handling it privately) is always the best first step. If bad behavior is based in immaturity or ignorance, your teenage employee simply needs to be told how to behave.

If it is willful and your teenage employee is purposefully flaunting your rules, you may have to let them go, particularly if this isn’t the first offense.

4. Ask the employee what they think.

Sometimes asking the employee why they think they are having the meeting, and then asking them what they think the solution is will reveal surprising answers.

You may have misjudged the situation. You, the manager, may actually be at fault or have a role to play that you were unable to see.

Let the employee be given a chance to critique their own behavior and explain the situation in the context that they understand it. By doing this, you are allowing them to tell you what they think happened, which feeds into their need to know that they have a voice and that their voice matters. They feel as if they have some control over their life.

5. Follow-up and commend or readjust.

Bring the employee in for follow-up at a later date. Ask how things are going, and if there are any problems. Be genuinely interested. Doing this helps the employee feel like you care, you weren’t simply handing out mindless punishment, and that you really meant what you said.


Teenage employees aren’t all that different from other employees. They are still human, with similar motivations. The key is to remember that they are young and not as far along in their career journey. You have a great opportunity to help shape the workforce of tomorrow by mentoring and training them with the foundational work habits that they will not get anywhere else.

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