My daughter is one of those young people who work in a customer facing role in fast food. You will be shocked at the difficult customers they have to put up with every day.
Young people and work
There seems to be a lot of writing about teenagers and the trouble they get themselves into and not enough about what the majority do well. This is a time of change and growth, which is always challenging. Most handle a number of commitments including school, home duties and after school sports. This is a time when young people start to form independent social relations and start to take on more responsibilities, including starting part-time work.
Look around you any day but especially after 3.30, and you will see this army of responsible young adults and you should feel optimistic about the future.
Part-time work is a responsibility many young people take on early, often from 14-15 with approval from parents. It is an important step towards building confidence in themselves and confidence about their future. They have to fit it in with all their other competing activities. That child who rushes off to work after school still has to complete assignments, read books for school, complete regular homework as well as fitting in home-duties and trying to have a social life.
I dwell a bit on the context of work in a young person’s life because it is important to understand clearly the stresses they are under as well as remembering that they are inexperienced, vulnerable and still building a sense of self, an adult identity.
Not all important matters are covered by authoritative studies by academics or industry bodies. We just have our everyday experiences to account for them. The work environment at fast food outlets is one such area.
My daughter works at McDonald’s and in this last week alone, she has been screamed at several times, called a bitch, called a spastic faggot and other names, experienced threatening behaviour, including having a taser pointed and zapped menacingly at her. All this for doing nothing but her job. No stuffed-up or late orders, no misunderstandings or out-of-stock messages even. Just everyday obnoxious customers.
A 15-year-old at a McDonald’s branch hosts a kids’ birthday party. Food, songs, cake, all sorted, but the mum will not collect the kids to do the games that are part of the package. After the party, mum does not want to pay the full price and abuses the teen for not doing a good job and carries on to get a reduced price. This is one particular incident and would not be worth including, except for the fact that this is replicated over and over. I would be willing to bet quite a bit that the same mum would not have quarreled about the price if the host had not been a young, vulnerable teen.
Is this unusual? Unfortunately not. This is the standard of behaviour that customer service staff has to deal with and that is straight from management. A quick poll of co-workers and other parents confirms that this is standard and expected behaviour. The gravity of behaviours differs but a theme of disrespect to young workers is so strong that it gives cause to contemplate several issues around this.
Turning to industry first, I am yet to hear about fast food outlets having a training module around the handling of abusive behaviour. That would go nicely with the induction-training program.
Why should industry take any precautions here? Because they rely so heavily on young workers and because the issue is endemic, meaning verbal abuse is a very foreseeable scenario.
Employing young workers and planning for this scenario is not the same as if you have mostly mature workers. Young workers have a natural deference to adults. This means adult behaviour has more impact as compared to the same words being from a teenage peer. Young people have less experience and thus can find it hard to understand why the abusive behaviour is happening, tend to blame themselves, can fail to see that comments intended to be personally hurtful to them are not actually concerning them at all, they are just the vulnerable target.
Customers are part of the working environment in service industries. Some control of the working environment should, therefore, be expected to be part of a duty of care owed by the employer. That, of course, is casting the issue in legal terms, which is not really where my argument is going but should still be kept in mind. I am more concerned about the impact on young people of being the subject of such behaviour from adults when it comes to confidence in themselves and their ability to work, how they get to see their own future and what industries they might consider, the toll it might take on their ability to head home to complete their assignments and other homework.
Disrespect in the workplace
What about the adults who think it is ok to verbally unleash on teenagers or be patronising, temperamental or huffy at young people doing their job.
I see people write about emotions as if they are simply innate, objective states of mind that rise to the surface at certain triggers. Emotions are so much more. They are triggered in the primitive parts of our limbic system and our strong emotions are not labeled such by accident – they create a lot of energy. This is why you can them physically, they churn in your innards and make some people literally red-hot. Emotions are like drugs and getting off on them is like taking drugs. If you see a chance to be patronising, you know the superior that comes with it; if you give in to anger, you know the rush of blood and the accompanying of superiority, of having to be right, of single-minded purpose or the righteousness inherent in being offended and so on – as the case may be. Most people learn to control emotions and learn graded responses to suit the situation they are in: not every emergency is life-threatening.
Understanding the basis of anger, resentment, outrage is relevant because we are now looking at scenarios where adults go to outlets staffed by young people and are getting off on abusing teenagers. These negative emotions create a high and these people think it is ok to release it on young people because they are vulnerable and not in a position to, in any way, respond in kind or create an appropriate response in return.
Industry Responsibility – options
What can the industry do to increase respect for their young workers? We are all used to seeing police at McDonald’s because they cleverly offer discounts to encourage a police presence around their outlets and I am sure it serves to keep some troublemakers at bay. All sporting fields and arenas are littered with signs about having respect for staff and players and that approach provides a useful frame of reference in relation to food outlets.
Psychological studies have shown that even cardboard cut-outs of police along roads improve driver behaviour: in other words – even a reminder was enough to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Maybe gentle reminders about looking after their young staff can be enough to make the working environment for teenagers better?