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Summer jobs and workplace harassment: Train your teen workers to avoid trouble

by Joan Farrell

June’s here and school’s out for the summer! For many teenagers, that means finding a summer job; and for most, it’s their first job or their first experience in a workplace. That means employers should be ready to provide training—and not just in the how-to’s of the job, but in appropriate workplace conduct.

Employers know, for example, that training employees to interact successfully with customers makes smart business sense. And although its effect on the bottom line may not seem as apparent, training teenage employees about workplace harassment is good for business, too.

Communicating clear expectations about acceptable workplace conduct lets teenage employees know that harassment in the workplace is never okay and should be reported immediately. Along with creating a better, more productive workplace, harassment prevention training reduces the likelihood that an employer will face harassment charges.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of female workers, ranging in age from 17 to 19, who were allegedly subjected to sexual comments, language, and advances by a supervisor. According to the EEOC, after the harassment was reported, the manager failed to take effective action to stop the harassment.

In addition to a payment of $150,000, the settlement requires the employer to designate an in-house equal employment opportunity coordinator, revise and distribute its antiharassment policy and procedures, and provide annual sexual harassment training to all employees at the restaurant where the harassment occurred, and to all general managers statewide.

Teenagers are smart and savvy about a lot of things. But many simply don’t have enough life experience to judge the appropriateness of certain behavior in the workplace. That’s where employer-provided training comes in. There are a few key points that employers should be sure to emphasize when training teen workers:

  • No one has to put up with harassment in the workplace—no matter if the harasser is a coworker, supervisor, delivery person, customer, or the CEO. Comments or actions unrelated to an employee’s job that make an employee uncomfortable should be reported—the goal is to stop inappropriate conduct before it rises to the level of unlawful harassment.
  • Retaliation is prohibited against an employee who reports harassment or inappropriate behavior. An employer’s harassment reporting procedure should provide for reporting alternatives in case the alleged harasser is the employee’s supervisor.
  • Conduct that’s acceptable outside the workplace may be inappropriate within the workplace. Training should include lots of examples so young workers learn to recognize harassing behavior and know how to report it. Depending on the circumstances, texting lewd comments or sending offensive photos via cell phone can constitute workplace harassment.

Summer jobs are a great way for teens to take on additional responsibilities, learn job skills, and earn some money; and employer-provided training can help ensure that a teen’s summer job experience is a positive one. Here are some additional tips for training teen workers:

  • Training should be straightforward so it’s easy for new workers to understand.  Avoid legalese and complex reporting procedures.
  • Focus on a few key points and consider refresher training a few weeks into the summer. Supervisors can do a quick review during employee meetings to remind all workers of their rights and responsibilities.
  • Encourage young workers to ask questions; and make it easy for them to get information.  In addition to providing training, have antiharassment information available online through the company intranet.
  • Post the procedure for reporting harassment along with a hotline number or other contact information. As part of a settlement in one case of teen harassment, the EEOC required the employer to provide each employee with a wallet-sized card on how to file a discrimination complaint with the company.

Joan S. Farrell, J.D., is a Legal Editor for BLR’s human resources and employment law publications. Ms. Farrell has over 10 years’ combined experience in employment law and human resources management.  Follow Joan on Google+.