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Teen Employee Warning

Do you hire 16 to 20 year olds for summer, part time or full time employment? If so, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and local employment attorneys will be reaching out to your younger employees.

The issue is sexual harassment. Even if you have an up-to-date harassment policy, even if you have informed all of your employees of your policy, even if you are committed to preventing and correcting harassment and even if there have been no harassment complaints, the EEOC and local attorneys want to talk with your employees.

The EEOC believes awareness about rights is lower among teen employees than other workers. Behavior that may be common among teens in other settings may be inappropriate or unlawful in the workplace. The EEOC then reasons that young workers must not understand workplace boundaries and therefore are failing to report harassment.

Is there an epidemic of sexual harassment of teens in the workplace? The EEOC filed 541 cases on behalf of minors in the first half of this year. Cases have been brought against employers such as Denny's, Church's Chicken, Burger King and Footaction. National retailers and fast food chains are not the only targets of these suits, just the most well known.

In addition to targeting teen harassment cases for litigation, the EEOC is contacting teen employees in schools. In some areas, the EEOC has begun a youth outreach initiative where attorneys visit local high schools. In addition, the EEOC is currently developing a high school curriculum on workplace harassment and discrimination that teachers will be able to include in their classroom lessons.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled employers can defend harassment claims by showing they take appropriate steps to prevent and correct harassment. By contacting teenage workers in schools, possibly after their employment with you has ended, you will not have an opportunity to correct any harassment that may have occurred. Instead, I am afraid, the EEOC will move forward with a complaint.

When the EEOC identifies an area of emphasis, local employment attorneys are not far behind. This will probably be true in the teen harassment area as well. One employment law attorney claims that employers frequently take advantage of teen workers. This attorney was quoted as saying ". . . that sort of runs into a whole myriad of rights that are often violated on behalf of young workers -- not getting paid correctly and sexual harassment among young women."

Are you committed to preventing and correcting harassment in your workplace? Are you committed to providing a workplace for your teen employees that is free of sexual harassment? If so, there are steps you can take to announce, implement and enforce your policy.

DON'T: Don't assume your current harassment policy is adequate. This is an area where the law is evolving quickly. For example, recent court decisions are addressing same sex harassment and the EEOC is focusing on teen harassment. You need an up-to-date policy that addresses all areas of concern and provides you with the defenses allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

DO: Do call us if you have any questions about your harassment policy or if you would like us to send you the harassment policy we recommend to our clients.

DO: Do provide all employees, including teen employees, with an employee handbook that communicates your expectations but preserves your ability to deal with employee issues on a case-by-case basis.

DO: Do update your handbook each and every year. Workplace issues and court decisions in response to those issues are changing quickly. Your policies and your strategies for dealing with problems need to change just as fast.

DO: Do sit down with all teen employees at the time of hiring and discuss your employment policies. This should include your policy on preventing and correcting workplace harassment.

DO: Do let teen workers know that conduct that may occur or may even frequently occur in other areas of their life may not be appropriate in your workplace.

DO: Do let teen workers know that you expect them to report any workplace harassment they experience or observe.

DO: Do let teen workers know, just like you do with all employees, that harassment claims will be investigated and there will be no retaliation for reporting harassment.

DO: Do investigate all claims of harassment and take appropriate actions to correct harassment. This can be difficult, I know, we frequently help clients investigate harassment claims and determine appropriate action. Although difficult, enforcement of your policy is crucial for maintaining a workplace free of harassment.

DO: Do conduct exit interviews with teen employees. There are all kinds of questions you may want to ask about their employment experience, their willingness to return and their recommendations of potential future employees. One of the questions should be whether they experienced, witnessed or know of any harassment in your workplace.

DON'T: Don't assume your workplace is free of harassment. You must take steps to prevent and correct harassment in order to insure that you provide your employees with a harassment free workplace.

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