Teaching Kids the Rules of Work

Teaching Kids the Rules of Work

When’s the best time to know your rights as an employee? Before you’re hired, or after you’re fired?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly, the best time to know your rights is before you are even hired. But, based on my experience as an attorney, people often don’t think about their rights until after they’ve been fired. And, at that point, it’s a little too late.

Knowing your rights, knowing the rules of work, is as important as knowing the rules of the road when you drive. Or understanding government when you vote. But, it seems we hardly think about the rules of work until we’ve encountered a problem. 

When I was in school, I took driver’s education. And, I learned about the three branches of government. I even suffered through those embarrassing lessons about the human body. In essence, I was prepared for nearly every important aspect of adulting, with the exception of work.

The same still seems to be true today, thirty years later.

It’s not that we don’t talk to our kids about work. We do that a lot. Starting at an early age. We encourage our kids to think about careers. To envision themselves with a life of meaningful work. Inspiring them to reach for the stars. But, we have these conversations in a vacuum. We avoid discussing the harsh realities of work. 

Sure, if we only shared the negative stories, no kid would ever willingly go to work. But, avoiding conversations about what employers can and cannot require of employees leaves our entry-level workforce ignorant of some pretty important information. Potentially creating a workforce ripe for exploitation. 

Once our kids start working, they’ll likely pick up some knowledge along the way. Maybe the overtime rules are explained by coworkers in the break room. Or, maybe they learn about workers’ compensation from an ER doctor as she cleans and stitches a workplace wound. But, is that the way we want our future workforce to learn this information? Information that’s as important to their lives as driving and voting.

By no means am I suggesting that workplace rules and regulations become an added class to an already crowded high school curriculum. Resources that explain these rules and regulations already exist. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor has a pretty comprehensive set of resources specifically for teenagers. 

But, how would any teenager know to look for this information? How do any of our kids learn that they need to know more about work than what time to show up, and how much they’ll get paid?

Just recognizing this gap in our career conversations is a good first step. Once aware, opportunities to talk about some workplace basics begin to appear.

For instance, Walmart is in the news this week for changing the job description for its store greeters. This change negatively impacts current Walmart greeters with disabilities. There are some reports that current greeters will no longer be able to adequately perform the work, leaving them without a job.

This one story, straight from the headlines, provides a great topic for debate on business needs vs. employee protection. Such a discussion will also simultaneously educate kids that there are laws that prevent workplace discrimination.  

It’s not necessary for kids to know the entire body of discrimination law. Just being aware of its existence helps kids recognize that employment is regulated.

Other recent, and somewhat recurring, headlines involve teachers on strike. Kids would likely eagerly engage in research about the prospect of not having school due to a strike. And, through such an assignment, kids would learn a bit about unions. Better appreciating their power, as well as their limitations. 

Additionally, the concept of overtime pay could work itself into a math lesson. Workers’ compensation into health class. And, workplace safety into a science lab.

I don’t think it will take much more than this to increase awareness of workplace regulations. Besides, kids will tune out if we go on too long. But, we shouldn’t leave it to chance, or until there’s a crisis, to mention to our kids that there is more to the world of work than their dreams of a meaningful career.

If young workers grow up hearing about overtime, workplace safety, and discrimination, in the same ways we talk about voting and highway safety, we will empower them.

We often talk as if the pursuit of dreams means pursuit “at all costs.” But, when it comes to work, that pursuit should be fairly compensated and safe. Kids should not grow up thinking that employers hold all the cards and they’re lucky to have a job. Kids should know their value. And their rights.

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