PHILADELPHIA -- Getting young workers to do a good job is the retailer's responsibility, Norine Larson told seminar attendees at the Retailer's Bakery Association convention here last month. Larson, who is a former teacher, corporate trainer and author, offered specific advice on how to increase the productivity of young part-time workers.
"I keep hearing retailers say that our young people have no work ethic, but they're not doing anything to teach them how to be better workers," she said. "Maybe parents and school systems have failed to engender work-ethic values in young people, but that's not a good reason for us to do nothing about it. It's not too late for the young people to learn," explained Larson, an Edina, Minn.-based retail consultant.
Tardiness and absenteeism are the most frequent complaints retailers have about their young workers, but Larson pointed out that both can be nipped in the bud if they're not tolerated. "You have to let them know there are consequences for their behavior. What's the least appealing chore that has to be done in your operation? It's probably cleaning something. So, why not post a sign over the time clock that says anybody who chooses to arrive late will be chosen for cleanup duty? Then enforce it. Once they realize you mean it, lateness will be less of a problem," Larson said.
She said the same goes for absenteeism and she offered what she thinks is a surefire way to cut that in half.
"Refuse to talk to Mom or anyone else but the employee. When a parent calls in to say son or daughter is sick, you can be pretty sure it's a lie. Have you ever been so sick you couldn't use the telephone? Once you refuse to take calls from anyone but the employee himself, you'll see how well it works. Young people hate to lie directly to their employers," Larson said.
She pointed out that each generation was reared in a different economic environment.
"Some of us grew up during a time when anyone who had a job was just thankful he had one. This is a different age. The job has to mean something. Our young people don't want to be just warm, breathing bodies. They want to be taught how to do something," she said. She added that as long as employers treat employees as if they are interchangeable, turnover will increase.
No matter what the job involves, it's the retailer's responsibility to put some meaning into it, Larson said. "I know a young man who applied at Disney World for a job and he came back very excited about the position. He'd been hired to park cars," she said. "He told me it was great, because he would be the very first person that comes in contact with a customer. Now, the Disney people know what they're doing." The very least a retailer can do is tell a new hire what the company is about and how the particular department he'll be working in affects the whole operation, she said. And she pointed out that young people need to be told how to do things. "They certainly don't know how to sell add-ons, for instance. You have to show them. Give them examples [of suggestive selling]," she said. She also recommended pairing a young new employee with another young person who is doing a good job.
"Young people will ask other young people questions. They're reluctant to ask someone older. So there's a good chance they won't ask a question, and will end up doing whatever it is [that they are doing] wrong," she said.
Most of all, young people want knowledge and affirmation, Larson said.
"They don't ever want to look stupid. So give them the information they need. They also don't like surprises. So tell them what's expected of them on the job. Get one of your best workers to write down what he or she does during a shift and you've got a ready-made job description you can give the new hire. And tell them ahead of time what the dress code is." Young people want guidelines, she added. "If you don't believe it, then go down to Disney World. Don't you wonder where they get all those clean-cut, polite kids that look like they've been cut from a pattern? They get them because they tell them the company's expectations from the moment they enter, and if they don't live up to them, they're out. The kids gobble it up, because it sets them apart. If you create excellent employees they will attract more of their kind," Larson said.
Conversely, an employee who isn't performing well can have an affect on other workers, she said. "If you have four employees on a shift and three are doing fine and the fourth is trying to get out of doing anything, you'll have a problem if you don't do something about that fourth person. The others will leave.
"They all know how much they're getting paid and it's only human to think, 'Why should I try so hard if he or she gets away with that?' " Larson said.
She also suggested rewarding employees for good work, even though retailers often rebel at complimenting employees for just doing what's expected of them. "I hear people say they wouldn't reward the engineer for getting the train in on time. Well, I would if the engineer is 19 years old and I want it to happen again tomorrow," she said.
Larson suggested that workers who are enlisted by retailers to train other workers be given some type of reward such as a $20 "training fee," or a smaller token.
"It doesn't have to be money. You can have cards printed up that say, 'Thanks for the extra effort. This is good for a free soda or bagel.' These things work. The kids don't even cash them in. I know one employer who has given out 50 cards for a free videotape and none have been turned in. Why? Because they're showing the card around to their friends," Larson said.
On recruiting the right people, Larson suggested having cards printed up that say something like "You caught my eye because you're doing a good job."
"Put your company's name and your telephone number on it and tell the young man or woman to give you a call if they think about changing jobs. That's not stealing; it's head-hunting. But who has thought about head-hunting for teenagers?" Larson asked.
She also suggested that retailers make up a "now hiring" notice and ask local churches to post it on their youth bulletin boards. "In return, you could offer the church a discount on cookies or cupcakes the next time they have an event," she said.
In conclusion, Larson suggested making application forms simpler so it's not a monumental task for a young person to fill them out.
"And let's stop asking 'big people' questions. When you ask a 17-year-old what his goals are, you'll probably get a blank stare," she said. Instead, ask what their interests are, who their favorite teacher is and why, or who they admire and why, and what they would most like to do on a day off.
"They'll feel you're interested in them as a person and it'll tell you something about them," Larson said.