transcript of “The Weird World of Interviewing Teenagers”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “The Weird World of Interviewing Teenagers.”

Alison: I talk a lot at Ask a Manager about how to hire good employees and how to convince an interviewer to hire you. There are a lot of things that we take as givens when we talk about job searching and interviewing, like that you have some idea of what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at. We assume that because we’re usually talking about adults who have some amount of work experience — and life experience for that matter — but what about when you’re hiring teenagers? It turns out the principles that you use when you’re hiring adults don’t always work when you’re talking to teenagers who may never have had a job before. Today we’re joined by Sue Bell, who co-owns Melissa and Sue Camps, which puts on different kinds of summer camps, and she’s interviewed tons of teenagers for jobs as camp counselors. Hi Sue. Thanks for coming on the show.

Sue: Hi Alison, thanks so much for having me.

Alison: You have a bunch of experience interviewing and hiring teenagers, and you have some really fascinating observations about how that can be different from hiring adults. So let’s start there. What are some of the differences between interviewing a teenager and interviewing an adult?

Sue: Well, I think the main difference is that adults come into the situation game ready, if you know what I mean. They’ve probably interviewed themselves in the car on the way over to the interview, they’ve thought about all the great things they’re going to say about themselves and they’re ready to put their best foot forward. And I think teenagers, although amped and ready for the interview, they first of all don’t have the experience and so they don’t know what to expect, which can also be a very nerve-wracking situation. But not only that, they don’t know themselves enough to be able to be forthright about all these amazing things that they could do. So what ends up happening is that I end up trying to draw out a lot of their qualities, or a lot of the things that they’d be great at. It seems to be a bit tricky. Whereas adults sit down and they’re like, “I’m great at this and this and this and wait till you see me do this and I’m the best person for the job.” And the teenager sort of looks at you like, “Help!”

Alison: How do you get them to open up enough so that you can get a real sense of who they are?

Sue: I think one of the tricks that my business partner and I use is just to have a normal conversation at the beginning. And what we do is spend the beginning part of the interview talking about our business and what we believe to be our favorite parts of the business, and what we’re looking for. So we’re giving them the platform to insert their great abilities into what we’re looking for. For example, we would say something like, “We’re looking for someone who could be really great at entertaining the kids all by themselves while we defuse some sort of parent situation or something like that. You know, someone who could sing songs or play a game or something like that.” Then their response could be, “I’m really great at singing songs with kids.” Great, check. And then we could say, “What would you do in that situation?” And then they could sort of play out exactly what they would do.

Alison: Yeah. Do you ever get anyone… I’m thinking back to something you said a minute or two ago when you were talking about adults. When you’re interviewing them, sometimes they come in and they’re running through all their strengths, and they’re telling you all the things that they’re great at — and sometimes it’s kind of puffed up and not strictly true. Do you run into that with teenagers or is that more of an adult problem?

Sue: I will say that generally the teenagers end up surprising us more with all of their awesomeness than perhaps the adults do. Do you know what I mean? The adults will give you all the things they’re great at, so there’s not a lot of room for you to set bigger expectations. They have a farther place to fall, if that makes sense. Where teenagers where you’re like, “I really have a gut feeling that they’re going to be great at this,” and then they come and they bang it out of the park and you’re like, “Yes, home run! I knew you had it in you!” So they actually have a bigger room to impress you because they’ve not sold themselves as well as the adult has.

Alison: Listening to you talk about it, I’m imagining being a teenager in that situation and maybe surprising myself a little bit. I could imagine the type of conversation that you’re describing drawing out strengths that I didn’t even realize were strengths.

Sue: I hope you’re right. I think when you’re a teenager, generally speaking of course, you really try very hard to blend into the crowd. You know what I mean? To be quirky and to be kind of strange is not exactly what you’re going for, to walk down the halls of the high school, generally speaking. But when you go into an interview, it’s that quirkiness and that weirdness that’s going to make you stand out from the rest. And in a job like mine, quirkiness is where it’s at. You know what I mean? To be loud and to be strange and to be not self-conscious and put yourself out there is exactly the kind of people we want role modeling for these kids. And so I think that what is the best part about my job in this aspect is being able to draw out that quirkiness in the teenager and then being able to celebrate it later if they’ve been hired. Does that make sense?

Alison: Yeah, I love that. Do you ask for references from teenagers or is that not really a useful thing?

Sue: We do ask for references. A lot of times, especially if it’s their first job, we’re getting a reference from probably an aunt or somebody within their family. Generally a lot of their experience is that they’re the oldest of six kids, or they babysat the neighbor’s kids for five years, or whatever it may be. But the reference I think is a good thing to ask for just for accountability, so that even in the future that they’re doing a great job because it’s great for them to know that that comes back, you know what I mean?

Alison: Yeah. Do you ever talk to a reference who gives you second thoughts about a candidate? Who makes you think, “Oh, maybe this person isn’t the right fit?”

Sue: Hmm, that’s a great question. I’ve definitely given references where I think I’ve given somebody else a second thought, but I feel like as a teenager people are working together to help raise these kids, right? And they want the best for them. So they’re going to give… their references are somebody who’s probably close to them and it’s good. I will say, and this is a very interesting thing that’s only been in the last 10 years of my job, is that I can check these kids up on social media, and I do. And I’ve not asked for an interview and I’ve not hired someone because of what I saw on social media.

Alison: Yeah. And is that stuff like partying or just generally poor judgment?

Sue: One in particular, she was writing about how much she hated her job. Okay. Well, no. And then another one was… Here’s the thing, is that a lot of my clients will also look up, the parents will look up these people that are taking care of their kids — and I don’t blame them, it’s their children. You want to make sure that the best people are taking care of them. And so if there’s any sort of… There’s been one person who had a lot of makeout pictures. I don’t want to have to answer to that.

Alison: That makes a ton of sense.

Sue: Not that people should censor themselves, but people should be aware that potential employers are looking at that.

Alison: Yeah, be aware it’s out there. One thing that I sometimes get fascinating letters about at Ask a Manager are adult job candidates whose parents are trying to be involved in their interview process. Which of course is wildly inappropriate for adults, but I wonder — you must encounter parents who are trying to be a little bit too involved. Am I right about that and if so, how do you handle that?

Sue: That’s a great question. I feel like we’ve actually done interviews with the parents or at least at the beginning of the interview and at the end of the interview, because a lot of the times we’ve heard about the teenager via the parents — they’re either a part of our social circle or however it may fall, where we ask our friends or another adult, “Do you have any kids or do you know of any kids that could help us out?” And so a lot of times they’re the ones making the introductions for their children. And sometimes that goes really great, and sometimes that doesn’t go so well, because the teenager is a different person around their parents, right? And so if it seems like it’s not working well, we will ask for more privacy, but generally I think my job is a little different because we do get a lot of our staff from people we already know.

Alison: And it makes sense that parents are going to have an interest in their minor child’s summer employment. So the boundaries are different.

Sue: And I would hope that they do. I want them to know that we will be treating their kids right and I’m taking care of them, because there are different levels to our camp and helping our counselors become wonderful and seeing their strengths is part of my job and my business partner’s job as well.

Alison: I love that you see it that way. Do you think that that is a pretty typical outlook for camp owners?

Sue: I think so, because it’s an experience, you know what I mean? It’s not just a job, you’re not going to a fast food restaurant and providing a service that someone pays for and the interaction is finished. Generally we’re spending six, seven, eight weeks with the same person and we want them to grow with us and we want them to have a great time. I had wonderful summer job experiences and I want the same for my staff. And I guess selfishly, if my staff is having a great time and feeling confident that is contagious, you know what I mean?

Alison: Yeah.

Sue: And when these kids are coming and they are having a great time and they themselves are growing and feeling more confident, then that’s a successful time. And I think that’s what summer camp is about, really — it’s making friends and exploring and adventuring and feeling great.

Alison: Oh, I love that. I have to ask, do you remember any especially strange or unusual experiences that you’ve had interviewing teenagers?

Sue: I think the one that stands out… well, yes. I have two. One we hired and one we didn’t, and I’ll explain the differences. So I’ve explained to you basically our general philosophies, which is making people — staff, campers ourselves, everyone included — have a wonderful time and feel really, really great. And we had this one interview and I swear she just came out of an emo convention or something, she was wearing all black — and she knows what she’s interviewing for so I don’t know what she was thinking, but she was wearing all black, didn’t smile, couldn’t look at us in the eyes and gave us nothing. And I explained to you before, I really do bait them a lot in terms of what they could answer to please our little employer brains and she just, with arms folded, sat there. And she just walked away and my business partner and I didn’t even comment. It was just, “Next.”

Alison: And what’s your theory there? Do you think she was maybe being pushed into it by a parent?

Sue: I think she was just, perhaps it just wasn’t her cup of tea, and what we explained ourselves and she was no longer interested. But self-consciousness unfortunately really plays such a big role in the teenage world. And I hate to say that, and that hasn’t been my experience all the time. But I think generally, especially compared to adults, that’s just something you’re navigating with them.

Alison: Yeah, absolutely.

Sue: And the second time we had somebody that stands out to me: the situation was I knew them very well, but my business partner had to interview them as well. And so I know this person as a very outgoing fun teenager and I knew that they would do a great job, but in the interview she folded herself. I can’t explain it more than just folded herself into her own body  and just was so unbearably shy and couldn’t give the information that we needed. And I had to just look at my business partner and say, “I promise she’ll do a great job. I promise that this just didn’t go well for her. And she can chalk this up to experience in an interview because I know she’ll do well.” And she did do a great job.

Alison: I feel like this is such a useful experience for teenagers, to begin to get their feet wet in an interview because I mean, it’s a stressful experience for many adults, if not most adults, so I’m sure it’s especially stressful for teenagers. Do you ever encounter teenagers who are actually really laid back and relaxed about the whole thing?

Sue: Yes. Yeah. And they get hired right away.

Alison: Yeah, I would think that would be a really good sign.

Sue: Yeah, you can tell as soon as they walk in, and it actually is so simple. You know, eye contact is our number one. I sometimes just want to look at the person I’m interviewing and say, “You know what, let’s take two. Come back and just look at us in the eye. It doesn’t even matter what’s coming out of your mouth as much as it is that you’re just connecting with us.” And so when they do walk in with a big smile, shake our hands — which is not often a teenage thing that they do put out their hand right away — shake it, look in the eyes with a big smile, immediately we’re relaxed, which makes a great interview. And then when they’re able to offer up, I can think of this one girl in particular where she didn’t know the answers, but she was so great at just being like, “I don’t know, let me think about that.” You know, straight up. And then was just like, “I don’t think I have an answer to what you’re saying, but let me just add this about myself.”

Alison: Oh, I like that! It shows a real confidence that she’s not afraid to say she doesn’t know something.

Sue: Exactly. And instead of just saying something sort of benign, she’s just being like, “Let’s forget what you asked me and let me tell you something fantastic.” And we will hire her summer after summer. She’s fantastic. Something I just really want them to know when they come in is that it’s safe. We generally want to hire people and if we find people quickly, honestly, it makes our job easier, right? So we’re not the enemy, you know what I mean?

Alison: Yeah.

Sue: We really want them to do well and we really want to be impressed by them, but I think a lot of times teenagers specifically come in and it’s sort of like that dreadful authority. This will be my boss. I’ve heard about bosses and bosses are terrible, instead of just putting their best foot forward and trying really hard to connect with us. And I think that’s the biggest word.

Alison: It’s funny, I find the same thing in adults actually. I tell people all the time, adults here: the person who is interviewing you wants to hire you. They are hoping you’ll be right for the job because you’ll be a solution to a problem that is annoying them and taking up their time. They’re not your adversary. They’re not looking to trip you up. But I think people get into this interview mindset. — certainly adults, and it sounds like some teens as well — where it does feel sort of adversarial and it’s all tied up in people’s weird relationship to authority.

Sue: I agree with you, and instead of thinking… listen, we’ve hired people that we didn’t think we were even looking for. Like I’ve said in this interview, we’re looking for loud, quirky people, but we definitely hired shyer, more mild-mannered people just because they impressed us and we wanted to be around them. And in our sort of situation we have so many counselors that there is space for somebody who doesn’t have to be the star of the show, where the kids could go and have a quiet time with this counselor. So you know, they’ve impressed us so much that we’ve almost tweaked the dynamic within our staff to have them come in. So as long as you’re being true to yourself — and this goes for adults too — you’re not in competition with anybody as long as you are being your true self. And so you are offering something to me that no one else can give me because it’s simply you. Does that make sense?

Alison: It does, yeah. I think that’s great advice.

Sue: So if you’re just simply yourself, you’re not in competition with anybody. But if you’re trying to be the greatest counselor or the greatest accountant or whatever your job that you’re going for is, then you have a whole huge competition because that’s what everyone else is trying to be. It’s kind of like that teenager that we hired that we love where she’s like, “I don’t know the answer to your question, but here’s an answer to another question.” You’re kind of like, “You’re right, you are great, and I’m going to find a way to make this work because this is the energy I want.”

Alison: I wonder too about managing teams, even aside from the hiring process. One thing I always tell managers is that they have to be really careful to be really clear about expectations. That you can’t assume that people know what you want or that they’ll understand your shorthand. You have to spell things out so that everyone is working from the same playbook. And I imagine that must go doubly or triply when you’re managing teenagers.

Sue: Yes, but I will say that they’re so open to being… told what to do is not the right thing to say, but to how the playbook works, that it’s very easy with teenagers because they don’t have a preconceived idea of how they think the day should go. We have staff from 15 years old to 40 years old, and they’re all wonderful. And a lot of times an adult would come in and have an idea maybe of how they would do it, because they’re older and have experience and maybe have done this job in the past. Whereas a teenager’s just kind of like, “Please tell me what to do.” And we’re as business owners like, “Gladly.”

Alison: When you started in this business, was there anything that surprised you? Did you learn anything that you didn’t expect about managing teenagers?

Sue: I think what surprised me the most, and maybe this is just my bad, is that when you hire the right people — very confident, very open people — you really don’t have to ‘boss them’ as much as maybe I imagined. Once you are on the same page and everyone has the same playbook and everyone is happy in their jobs, then as a manager or as the owner, it alleviates so much from me that I can just enjoy them. And I can enjoy being their peer (even though I may be 30 years older than them, or 20 years older maybe) is that I can sit back and watch them shine and not have to be such a boss. And I think before hiring teenagers I thought, “Wow, this is going to be a big job. They’re 16, and I’m going to have to follow them around and make sure they’re doing everything right.” But truly, if you are open and you’re able to give them the tools to be great, then you get to sit back and watch them be great and that’s wonderful.

Alison: I think there’s something similar there for adults as well, actually. If you hire the right people, the vast majority of the time, you should be able to relate to them like a peer. You shouldn’t always have to have your boss hat on. And I think ineffective managers miss that lesson, but if you have great people working for you and everyone is clear on what you’re there to get done, often you can let them go.

Sue: Yes. And then not just let them go, watch them grow and shine and nail it. And then it’s important as a manager to say, “Hey, guess what? I was watching you and you nailed it.”

Alison: Yes.

Sue: And then they feel more confident to keep doing what they’re doing. It’s wonderful.

Alison: You sound like you would be such an amazing manager and interviewer for a teenager.

Sue: That’s very kind, but I feel like we’re all spoiled in my job because really the common thread of it all is: we want the child to be happy. We want them to have a good experience. And so however we get there is only going to be great intentions. You know what I mean? By the time the kids come, it’s nothing to do about money. Our counselors aren’t worried about money or anything like that. Their only job is to make sure everyone is feeling safe and happy. And so, what a wonderful way to wake up. You know what I mean? How are we going to make them happy today?

Alison: Yeah.

Sue: So we’re spoiled in our job because there’s not the other pressures that maybe another job may have of the productivity or whatever it may be. It’s just, if that kid’s leaving with a smile and they’re running to their mom or their dad saying, “I had a great day.” We’re like, “Awesome.”

Alison: Oh, I want to go back to summer camp now.

Sue: Right?

Alison: The last question for you, if you could give one piece of advice to a teenager in your life who was going to their first job interview, what would you tell them?

Sue: I think my advice to a teenager would be to spend some time prior to the interview and just really thinking about themselves and why they are awesome and why they are great. And think of specific reasons, and reasons that set them apart from other people. Not that they’re better or worse, just different. Why are you different and why would I want to spend my time with you? Or why would you be a great role model? And with all of those characteristics in your heart and in your head, you’re going to walk in confident because you know what makes you awesome. And then you’re going to be able to have an interview where you feel confident with what you can bring to this job. And hey, this is great life advice too — wake up every morning and look in the mirror and think about why you’re awesome. Let’s all do that. But I think specifically for an interview because then you’re not selling me yourself, you’re just being you, and then if you can fit into my world in what I’ve created, then then hop on in. If you don’t fit in and you don’t get the job, it’s because that just wasn’t a great fit, not because you didn’t perform well or not because of anything else. It’s just that what you specifically had at that moment wasn’t going to fit with that one, but it will fit somewhere else.

Alison: That is great advice, not just for teens but for adults. I think you just took 11 years of what I’ve been writing on Ask a Manager and summarized in a few sentences.

Sue: Great, let’s run the world.

Alison: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show and share all of this. I thought this was so interesting.

Sue: Thank you, Alison.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.