Every year, millions of teenagers join the workplace for the first time. A first job can be a positive experience for many, teaching them discipline and responsibility in addition to giving them some extra money. However, some teens find themselves working in hostile environments. Their supervisors might treat them unfairly because of their sex or race, harass them, hassle them about reasonable work accommodations, and retaliate against them if they complain to upper management about these conditions. Employers who tolerate mistreatment of employees, including teens, could find themselves in trouble with the law.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission described several examples of harassment of teens on its YouthAtWork.com Web site:
- In Pennsylvania, a 19 year-old shift supervisor at a Mexican restaurant sexually assaulted a 16 year-old female employee. His manager accused the girl of making it up, but after the supervisor confessed to the police, the EEOC sued the restaurant, which paid $150,000 in restitution to the employee and a fine to the EEOC.
- A store manager at a fast food place in Kansas harassed and sexually assaulted a 14 year-old girl. He eventually went to prison, but because the company had permitted him to harass at least four female employees, it paid restitution, wrote letters of apology, and was required to implement mandatory sexual harassment training for employees.
- Several women, both teen-aged and older, were sexually harassed by a store manager at a California bagel shop. Their complaints to management did not improve the situation, and eventually some of them quit. The EEOC sued the shop, the offending manager lost his job, and the owners of the shop paid a steep penalty.
The EEOC’s Web site lists several rights and responsibilities of teen-aged workers, including:
- The right to work free of discrimination.
- The responsibility to treat other employees without discrimination.
- The right to work free of harassment.
- The right to complain about job discrimination without punishment, and the responsibility to inform management of discrimination.
- The right and responsibility to request workplace changes for the worker’s religion or disability.
The right to keep medical information private. To avoid harassment claims from any employees, young or old, employers should:
- Adopt, promote, and enforce a formal policy against sexual harassment.
- Take reports of harassment seriously. Investigate all reports and take appropriate action, if required.
- Emphasize to supervisors and managers that they are not to retaliate against employees who complain of harassment.
- Provide training for managers on how to recognize sexual harassment and how to receive complaints.
- Train new employees on how to recognize harassment and how to make complaints.
Employers should also carry Employment Practices Liability insurance (EPLI) to protect themselves against the financial consequences of claims that do occur. EPLI policies cover the employer’s liability for discrimination, wrongful termination of employment, sexual harassment, rights violations, and other harmful acts committed by company managers. One of our professional insurance agents can give advice on the different policies available and their cost.
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for all employees, but that responsibility is magnified when it comes to teenage employees. Keeping your workplace harassment-free will ensure a happy, productive workforce and keep your attention where it should be — on growing your business.