At Neutral Zone we follow a number of program and organizational practices that define us as a “youth-driven space”. One of those practices is involving teens in all staff hiring. Yes when I say “all”, we do mean EVERYONE! This includes our program staff, like our Music or Educational Coordinators and administrative positions including the Administrative Assistant and even our Director of Business and Finance.
Over our history the practice has evolved, and been formalized. When I was hired, nearly 10 years ago, I was escorted up to one of the drop-in spaces – and among some well-worn couches and a motley group of teens, spent about 45 minutes being prodded with questions. I think the teens were mostly curious to make sure I wasn’t a teacher (I was at the time!) or some well-meaning adult who didn’t really understand or appreciate their spirit, energy or who didn’t respect them and their ideas. I must have passed muster because I was offered the job and continue more than ever to appreciate teen spirit, energy and respect them as competent, creative, and interesting people.
Today we have formalized teen involvement in the hiring process. When we have a new staff hire, the current staff start by brainstorming a list of teens who might participate. We first consider teens from the program area (if hiring for a staff position) and look to pull a representative group across experience and identity. After gathering interested teens, we ask them to caucus with the others on the hiring committee, reviewing resumes and discussing candidates. We then review a list of interview questions and split them up among the committee. We also ask teens what’s important, from their perspective, for this hire and encourage them to develop questions to address those areas. We will often times do some role playing to help teens successfully play their role as interviewers.
At the recent interview for our Education Coordinator, we had an amazing group of three teens from our education programs who joined two other adult staff to conduct interviews. The teens were savvy in rejecting candidates who looked good on paper, but who turned out not to be the right fit. They also stepped out with some amazing impromptu questions during the interview (Jazmyn: “how do you handle crisis?” or Will: “what do you do outside of work?”). After the interviews the teens had a strong preference for Kelsey. Kelsey’s ethnic identity is white, unlike most of the teens in our education program who are youth of color. The teens, however, felt that she was the strongest candidate, that they could trust and work with her, and that she would be a great support for them. They were right; Kelsey has turned out to be an outstanding staff member and a great fit for the program and teens. Had we made the decision without teen voice, however, Kelsey may not have been as easily accepted by teen participants.
When we involve teens in hiring, we want to make sure that adults staff at the Neutral Zone understand, from the get go, that this is a space for and by teens. It also helps us see concretely the comfort level adults have in being around teens. Involving teens is good for the strength of the organization.
On the flip side, involving teens in hiring is good for them. Not only does it empower them and make them feel competent, it’s good for their learning. Preparing and conducting an interview helps one gain insight into the hiring process. You review the kinds of questions that are typically asked and you reflect on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. These experiences help teens be stronger interviewees when they go out into the workforce.
Staff hiring can be a long and arduous process. Involving teens in this normally adult-led role takes even more work. It is work worth doing, however, as it has great benefits for new staff, for the organization and for the teen interviewers themselves.