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Managing today’s workforce: Teenagers and sexual harassment

03/04/2010

Federal and state laws that protect employees in general also protect young people in the workplace. But because of their youth and inexperience, teenage employees may be more vulnerable to harassment than other workers.

THE LAW: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination based on sex. Workplace sexual harassment falls under Title VII. Employers can investigate and remedy harassing situations without facing liability.

Courts have consistently held that employees are entitled to a harassment-free workplace. Numerous state laws also address workplace harassment.

WHAT’S NEW: The EEOC has mounted several initiatives to help employers understand how different federal anti-discrimination laws intersect and how employers can comply with them. One of them is the commission’s “Youth at Work” initiative.

The EEOC’s Youth at Work web site (www.eeoc.gov/youth/index.html) tells teens they are entitled to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment, that they have a right to report harassment and discrimination without fear of retaliation, that they may request a workplace change based on disability or religion, and that any medical information they share with their employer should be kept confidential.

Youth at Work was launched in response to several high-profile teen sexual harassment cases. A McDonald’s franchise in Colorado paid out $505,000 to four female employees who were sexually harassed at its Durango store. The employees were 15 to 19 years old at the time of the harassment. Carmike Cinemas, a theater chain operating in 36 states, settled a male-on-male sexual harassment case in 2005 for $765,000. In 2007, GLC Restaurants paid a group of eight female workers $550,000 to compensate them for ongoing sexual harassment by a male supervisor.

HOW TO COMPLY: The EEOC initiative aims to inform teen workers of their rights. Employers should understand that teen workers present a particular set of issues that older workers may not.

First, sexually charged conversations are not unusual for many teen workers, and once the sex talk begins, workers who are uncomfortable with the subject matter may be reluctant to complain because of peer pressure. Managers may take this silence as consent or even sexual interest. From there the process snowballs.

Often, teens are supervised by managers who are only a few years older. This may lead to a less formal relationship where sexually charged conversation is acceptable. If employers don’t lay down ground rules, the natural dynamics may spin out of control.

Train every supervisor

Every supervisor must be trained about sexual harassment. Some states require sexual harassment training. Supervisors must understand that sexually oriented discussions and actions have no place in the workplace. They must stop such talk before it gets out of hand.

This strategy accomplishes two goals. First, it reinforces professional workplace behavior and shows that the employer is serious about combating sexual harassment. Second, it takes the burden off employees and places it on the employer.

Supervisors must also understand that employees need an avenue to complain about sexual harassment. Teen workers who may feel intimidated by reporting harassment directly to a supervisor should have another point of contact with the company. Give this information to all new hires and post it in the workplace.

Supervisors should also be open to hearing complaints from teenagers’ parents. If the harassed teen is uncomfortable discussing the issue, protective parents may get involved. Complaints from parents should be treated the same way employee complaints are.

Investigating harassment

Once an employer learns of possible workplace sexual harassment, it has a duty to investigate.

Upon receiving notice of a sexual harassment complaint, notify the accused person and explain that you will quickly and fairly investigate the complaint. Tell the accused that you won’t tolerate retaliatory statements or actions against the accuser or potential witnesses—that’s grounds for discipline in its own right.

Assure the accuser that a thorough, unbiased investigation will take place and that you take her charge very seriously. It may be necessary to separate the accuser and accused during the investigation.

Investigators should inform all potential witnesses that they are expected to tell the truth and that the company will not retaliate for doing so.

 If harassment took place, punish the harasser in accordance with company policy. Similar offenses should net similar punishments.

If the accuser knowingly filed a false complaint, discipline the accuser. This is very rare, and employers should pursue this course only if they have incontrovertible proof.

Finally, if the investigation yields no evidence of sexual harassment, no one should be disciplined. However, take the opportunity to remind everyone that you don’t tolerate any type of sexual harassment in the workplace.