There’s a reflection exercise we like to do when introducing youth-driven spaces to adults, called “take a stand”. We read participants a number of statements from our youth-driven formative index. We then ask participants to place themselves, physically, on a continuum from agree to disagree in regards to whether that statement applies to their program or organization.
Towards the end of the exercise we usually bring in the item “youth are involved in all staff hiring.” Most participants sheepishly move to the disagree side (I am always happy when some proudly move to the agree side, however, that is rare).
During reflection, adults say “it’s just too difficult to involve youth in staff hiring,” that it could make interviewees “feel uncomfortable or awkward,” or that “they’d like to involve youth, but their director wouldn’t think of it.” Even for those who move to the agree side, many say – “we involve youth in many of our hires, but not all.”
There are many good reasons to involve youth in this important aspect of an organization. First, in youth-serving programs and schools we want adults who are comfortable around young people. When we put them in front of young people during the interview process we get a glimpse of how they might conduct themselves on an on-going basis with youth. At Neutral Zone even when we hire for an administrative position, like accountant, it’s still critical for us to make sure that the person filling that role be comfortable in a setting dominated by youth. What better way than to have youth sitting at the table from the get go.
Second, when we involve youth in staff hiring, we send a signal to our participants that they have a voice in the organization. This authentic decision making is one of the core elements of youth-adult partnerships. Research shows that these kinds of genuine leadership roles attracts and retains older youth in community programs. When we give youth a real stake in the organization, all the way the highest levels of the organization’s functioning, they become invested, engaged and stay.
Finally, involving youth in staff hiring gives them a unique opportunity for their own professional development. When youth have the experience as an interviewer, it helps them gain insights into the interview and hiring processes – something that will make them more effective entrants into the workplace. Moreover its been a big boost to their confidence. Like when Jazsmyn, impromptu chimed in on a recent interview “how do you handle crisis?” or Will, ad-lib interjected “what do you do for fun outside of work?” and later worried that the candidate didn’t have ‘balance’ in her life.
There are risks for involving teens and giving them power in the hiring process and it doesn’t always turn out perfectly. We had a beloved music coordinator who left Neutral Zone to return to graduate school. We included teens in the hiring process, narrowing it down to two final candidates. The teens did not go with the person our Program Director thought they should hire; the teens feel in love with the person who broke out his guitar in the middle of the interview. After two months, it was apparent that he wasn’t going to be a good fit at Neutral Zone and, within six months, he wound up leaving. We ended up hiring the candidate that our Program Director had preferred in the first place. Yes a difficult process, but certainly not fatal.
This example, however, is a rare one. We have almost always found teens to be incredibly insightful and valuable when vetting any new hire. It’s good for them, its good for the new hires and it is good for the organization.