Summertime means summer jobs for students. For those lucky enough to find employment, it may be their first experience in the workplace. In addition to learning about job skills, dress codes, and safety standards, many of these newly hired workers will need to learn what kind of conduct is acceptable in the workplace, and what isn’t. Sexual harassment of young, inexperienced workers by co-workers and supervisors can create real problems for employers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has brought claims against several employers on behalf of teenage workers. Earlier this year, it settled a case in which it claims a restaurant supervisor repeatedly harassed a teenager working at her first job. The supervisor subjected the teen to sexual comments and demands for sex. He also ordered her not to report his behavior to management.
The $150,000 settlement included a requirement for the employer to conduct extensive sexual harassment training and to submit semi-annual reports to the EEOC describing any sexual harassment complaints made by employees.
In another case, a teenage worker who initially kept silent about her manager’s sexual comments and lewd gestures brought a lawsuit against her employer after being physically assaulted. She and three co-workers were awarded $850,000 in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages.
Unique Challenges of Teenage Sexual Harassment
There are several reasons why sexual harassment of younger workers presents unique challenges for employers. First, younger workers may seem to go along with offensive conduct because they want to be accepted as part of the work group and because they really don’t know where the boundaries of conduct lie. Because of their age and lack of experience, many may not understand that inappropriate workplace conduct can be unlawful, or they may hesitate to complain about harassment when it comes from a person in authority.
Second, many summer jobs are in casual work environments like camps, amusement parks, and fast-food restaurants where employees may think there’s a more relaxed standard for workplace conduct. In addition, 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. Conversely, some more experienced supervisors may take advantage of a teen worker’s inexperience in the workplace and threaten retaliation if a worker reports harassment.
Here are a few steps employers can take to help prevent workplace harassment:
- To prevent sexual harassment of teenage workers, employers need to be vigilant about providing training that covers:
- What constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace
- The fact that retaliation is unlawful
- How to report harassment and/or retaliation when it occurs
- Employers need to make sure that the training is geared toward teenage workers so it’s effective. Use lots of examples so employees understand what kind of behavior is inappropriate.
- Employers should have strong policies against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Policies should be clearly communicated to all workers. The procedure for reporting harassment should be straightforward and easily accessible. Always include more than one avenue for reporting in case an employee is being harassed by a supervisor. Make sure teen workers know how to contact the Human Resources department and encourage them to bring their concerns about inappropriate behavior to HR.
- Supervisors should receive additional training on handling harassment complaints and on the employer’s policies against harassment and retaliation.
Additional Resources on Sexual Harassment