Unspoken rules on appearance, responsibility guide teen workers

The pudgy teenage grocery store clerk looked like Biff, from the movie, "Back to the Future." Taped across his tee shirt, with long strips of clear mailing tape, was the plastic sign, "Lane Closed." I craned my neck to see what was going on, but none of the customers were laughing. Hmmm. This was going to be interesting. As I started putting my groceries on the conveyor belt, I began to understand why.

He never acknowledged that I was standing in front of him. Not even, "Paper or plastic." He was the center of attention with his five coworkers, however. "Hey, who wants to scan for me?" "Hey, I’m talkin to ya," he shouted. Smirks and smart remarks shot back. "Hey, can I go on break?" he shouted to a post pubescent girl with stringy hair. She must be the "manager," I thought wryly. "No," she said, hesitantly. "Can I go on break, then?" another teenager shouted. She turned around and started chewing her hair.

Biff sullenly scanned and when he finished, I swiped my credit card. Nothing. I did it again. "Please wait," it read. "Here, he said. You have to bless it." He made the sign of the cross over the box and said, "The Lord be with you." Loud laughter from his cronies. With a quick touch of a key on the cash register, it chattered and spit out the receipt. The elderly woman behind me looked a little frightened. Trapped by the cart behind her, her eyes darted, searching for a way to escape.

The week before, I was checking out of a different store. I asked the teenage clerk, "So, how are you today?" "Okay, I guess," she replied. "That doesn’t sound very good," I offered, just trying to make conversation. "I hate this sucky job," she mumbled.

Just to set the record straight, I enjoy teenagers. They’re funny, irreverent and great to be around. My house has been full of them for years, first my daughter’s friends and then my son’s. But what I see in some workplaces isn’t amusing. Somewhere along the line, some of these kids have missed something. Maybe it’s permissive or absent parents. Maybe it’s the lack of respect tolerated by some teachers and parents who almost seem afraid of kids today. And the labor shortage is causing supervisors to be more permissive. They look the other way, rather than deal with absenteeism or attitude problems because they are so short staffed.

So, I’d like to talk with young people who are working for the first time:

When you get a job for pay, there are certain unspoken rules you need to know. Here’s the deal: you expect to be paid on time. They expect some minimum standards from you. They think you already know these rules and so they usually don’t spell them out for you. Here are some of them:

1.      You’re supposed to look the part. The clothes, hairstyles and jewelry you wear on your own time may not fit your place of employment. The managers are paid to care about the customers’ perceptions, they aren’t trying to judge you or persecute you. You may have to make some compromises.

2.      You’re supposed to show up on time and not call in sick, unless you really are. Part of the deal is that they have to be able to count on you when you say you’ll be there. Your fellow employees are counting on you, too. If you decide to stay home when they feel like it, you’re messing with other people’s lives, and they will resent you for it. If you can’t make a commitment to this rule, you’re not ready for the adult world of work.

3.      Customers rule. When you are getting paid to wait on customers, you are expected to paste on a smile, look them in the eye and care about their service. Some customers will make you glad you took the job. Others will make you do a slow burn. Fake it if you must, but show respect and tolerance. If this isn’t for you, get a job cutting grass or something else that doesn’t involve constant customer interaction.

4.      Watch your attitude. This may not be the coolest job, but you agreed to take it, so don’t constantly complain about it to co-workers or customers. If you hate it, find something else, but don’t make everyone listen to you in the meantime. One summer, I had a horribly boring job. I stood on a hard, cement floor in a dimly lit warehouse putting prices on rubber sandals. I hated it, but the pay was ok. All summer long I vowed I’d go back to college with renewed motivation. Use every job as a learning experience. They can teach you what you don’t want to do, or they can expose you to things you enjoy.

5.      Respect your manager. Learn to take direction and suggestions without pushing back all the time. This is one of those rules that can be hard for you if you don’t like authority but you’ll have to get over it. If you don’t like to take orders from anyone, you’d be wise to start your own business. Keep in mind, however, that the customer will be the most demanding authority figure of all.

6.      Horseplay is okay, to a point. Banter between co-workers is fine, but wait until customers aren’t around. Fooling around isn’t out of line, either, as long as the work is getting done and safety isn’t an issue. Some workplaces encourage their employees to have fun. Southwest Airlines, for example, allows the flight crew to be entertaining. I remember a petite stewardess popping out of the overhead baggage compartment to begin her entertaining safety speech. It’s one of the few times I paid attention to the entire routine. When it came time to take care of passengers and keep the flight safe, however, it was clear the crew knew when to draw the line on silliness.

7.      Take some initiative. In our business, we usually have college interns working on a part-time basis. Usually, they start out a little shy and seek out approval for every task. After awhile, they learn that the way to pull their weight around the office is to think for themselves. When they start anticipating problems, or they have an idea that will make things easier, we know they’re starting to understand how to be a productive member of the team.

Note to managers: Why not post this article next to the time clock? In a day or two, someone’s sure to draw a mustache and horns on my picture. But maybe a few will take my advice to heart.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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