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The best way to interview a teenager for a job

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: We’re hiring teenagers at a fast-food restaurant. It’s hard to assess someone so young who has so little experience talking to an employer! They get very nervous. It’s like pulling teeth to interview them. What are some good questions to ask a 14-to-16-year-old for a fast-food job?

Nick Corcodilos: Questions are not a good way to assess a potential employee. They are an indirect assessment method. And as you point out, a standard Q&A format doesn’t work well with young people who are unfamiliar with it. But, why ask questions when you can ask for a demonstration? I call this the “do the job to win the job” interview.

Take the teenager into your restaurant. Show them the area where they will work. Explain what the work is — the tasks and your expectations. Let them shadow another employee for a little while. (Caution: Don’t let this turn into getting free work out of them! That’s not right.)

Unless the work is dangerous or a novice’s mistakes might put a customer or another employee at risk, encourage the other employee to let the job candidate try their hand at it. Don’t expect much, but let them try.

Then sit down with the candidate. Ask them, “What do you think? Can you do this job?”

Let them talk. Then ask:

  • Now that you’ve seen the job, can you describe to me how you would do it?
  • For example, how would you take an order for a hamburger and fries?
  • What parts of the work do you think you need training to do?
  • How do you think you could do the job better than someone else?
  • What kinds of errors do you think you might make?
  • What would enable you to do the job better?

Traditional interview questions aren’t about the work. For example, What’s your greatest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Who cares what animal they would be if they could be any animal? (See “Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions: #1 – #5.”)

On the other hand, the questions I suggest above are all about the work. This makes your discussion very concrete, and I think young people respond best when they can see what you are talking about.

I would not ask any questions until after you have shown the candidate the work and observed them trying their hand at it. Find out whether they understand the job you want to hire them to do and whether they can show you how they would go about it.

If this seems obvious, it is. The world is awash with silly “interview tricks” that tell us nothing about whether someone can do a job.

Of course, there are lots of other things you want to know about a job candidate. Are they honest? Can they communicate well? Are they smart? Can they work with others? The “do the job to win the job” method I suggest above will tell you all that because in the course of shadowing and discussing the work with you, the candidate will reveal everything else you need to know. Just pay attention!

Dear Readers: What would you ask a teenager to interview them? Do you remember how you got hired when you were young?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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