In today’s Advisor, we hear from guest columnist, BLR® Senior Legal Editor, Joan Farrell, on the importance of training teen summer hires on sexual harassment issues.
Hiring workers for summer jobs can be beneficial for both employers and employees. Employers can meet their need for increased seasonal staffing, and employees—many of them students on summer break—can earn some money and gain valuable work experience.
For the summer job experience to be a positive one for both employer and employee, it’s a good idea for employers to remember that this may be a teen worker’s first exposure to a workplace. Along with learning the skills needed to do the job, young workers need to learn what kind of conduct is appropriate—and inappropriate—in the workplace.
In the school environment, for example, most teens are accustomed to some teasing and flirting. As a result, it may be difficult for teen workers to discern the difference between workplace banter and sexual harassment.
They may be hesitant to report inappropriate conduct for fear of losing their job or being viewed as overly sensitive or disloyal. And harassment by a supervisor presents a particularly difficult dilemma for young, inexperienced workers who have been taught to respect authority.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has responded to the problem by providing outreach through the Youth@Work website that explains employees’ rights and responsibilities and encourages teens to report unfair treatment or harassment to their employers. The website has a curriculum guide for students and teachers along with videos that explain workers’ rights.
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EEOC Cases of Teen Sexual Harassment
The EEOC has also taken action by bringing lawsuits against employers, alleging unlawful harassment of teen workers. In one case, the EEOC charged that a restaurant owner repeatedly subjected female employees (at least one of whom was a teenager) to sexual harassment. The lawsuit included allegations that some employees were drugged and sexually assaulted.
When a manager complained to upper management about the owner’s behavior, she was warned to “keep her mouth shut” and then fired. The restaurant settled the lawsuit last year for $200,000 and agreed to hire an independent monitor to be responsible for conducting prompt investigations of any sexual harassment or retaliation complaints.
In another case that settled last year, the EEOC alleged that a teenaged hostess at a restaurant in California was sexually harassed by her male supervisor who allegedly made unwanted sexual propositions, grabbed the young woman, and tried to kiss her. In addition to a $15,000 monetary settlement, the restaurant agreed to hire a third-party consultant to create, revise, and implement new antiharassment policies and procedures.
In a pending lawsuit filed a few months ago, the EEOC brought a claim against a grocery store chain on behalf of a 15-year-old employee who was allegedly harassed by a male coworker over a period of years. Although the employee complained to store management, no action was taken until she called the company’s hotline number.
Teen Training on Sexual Harassment
Because teen workers may have very little experience in the workplace, it’s important for employers to make sure young employees receive training on what’s considered inappropriate conduct and how to report it. This may mean adapting training to make sure it’s effective with this target audience. Using videos, interactive training, and allowing trainees to submit questions anonymously may be more effective than traditional classroom training.
Employers should make sure that young, tech-savvy workers also understand that offensive pictures and comments sent via cell phone can constitute unlawful harassment. Training new supervisors takes on increased importance as those who supervise summer workers may be not much older than the workers they supervise and it may be their first time in a supervisory position.
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Although the summer work season lasts only a couple of months, taking the time to provide harassment prevention training helps employers avoid long-term problems with workplace harassment—and helps to make a new worker’s first job experience a positive one.