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I recently spoke at a leadership conference attended by approximately 300 10th- and 11th-grade students. The conference was intended to be an introduction to the business world for high school students who would be entering the work force this coming summer. The topic on which I was asked to speak — workplace harassment. I didn’t really know what to expect. Would the kids sleep through the presentation? Would they politely pretend to listen and have little to say? About one thing I was fairly certain, the students would not know much about the law and they would know even less about what they should do in the event harassment existed in their workplace. I could not have been more wrong. The students’ reaction was astounding. Not only were they genuinely engaged, their collective knowledge on the subject actually far surpassed that of many experienced employees whom I train on the same subject. Lesson learned, the kids get it. They understand the law, they know their rights, and they know they do not have to tolerate inappropriate conduct in the workplace, even if it is employment that lasts only during the summer months. And employers take heed, summer is coming. With the summer will come, for many employers, the introduction of teenagers into the workplace. According to the Washington Post, approximately 3 million youngsters ages 15 to 17 work during the school year and, during the summer months, that number reaches approximately 4 million. Many employers assume that, unlike their adult employees, some of these teenaged employees are not prepared to recognize inappropriate or harassing workplace behavior and do not know what to do, or where to turn, when they are subjected to such conduct. Even more dangerously, many employers view teenagers on the job as fungible and simply do not treat them with the same respect as older workers. For those employers who hire these younger workers to perform work during the summer months, the time is now to begin preparing for their arrival. One of the most important things an employer can do to prepare for the arrival of these younger workers is to review its anti-harassment policy to ensure it is in compliance with the ever-changing federal and state law. You see, as my experience made abundantly clear, while these workers are younger, they are no less astute with respect to the areas of harassment and they certainly are becoming no less shy than the older worker in raising concerns about potentially hostile working environments. In 1994, the first year for which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has statistics available, the EEOC handled approximately 1,300 workplace harassment cases where the complainant was 18 years old or younger. Since that time, this number has increased dramatically. Why such a dramatic increase? For one, students are being educated about the law. Schools now have begun to conduct student training to counteract their own harassment problems. According to one West Coast-based human resources consultant, “schools are starting to do more training and put the word out to the kids because schools have their own sexual harassment problems to worry about. Today’s teens have more awareness than they had four or five years ago because schools have had to ramp up their awareness.” This increased awareness can result in significant liability to the employer who does not take these issues seriously. Teenagers know their rights, and no longer are afraid to exercise them, even if it means going to court. In addition, teenaged employees read all the time about large companies being forced to pay very large settlements to kids their ages. In fact, recently, owners of a St. Louis Burger King franchise agreed to pay $400,000 to seven teenage employees to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought on their behalf by the EEOC. A Los Angeles Jiffy Lube franchise paid $300,000 to three female employees (two of whom were 17 years old), based on allegations that supervisors’ and co-workers subjected them to lewd gestures and explicit conversations about sexual acts. Similarly, Jack in the Box paid a $300,000 settlement in June 2004 after five female workers (three between the ages of 16 and 21) claimed that they were subjected to constant lewd remarks and sexual overtures by their supervisor. Third, the EEOC has discovered the problems and has begun, in large numbers, to file suits on behalf of teenaged employees. In the past several years, the EEOC has filed sexual harassment suits involving teen employees against companies including Denny’s, Church’s Chicken and a company that operated Burger King restaurants. In all, the EEOC has brought 30 lawsuits against employers; claims on behalf of employees between ages 14 and 19. In fact, within the last two months, the EEOC has filed two class action lawsuits charging that supervisors at McDonald’s franchise restaurants sexually harassed their teenage employees. According to the vice chair of the EEOC, “[T]he cases point out not only the need for employers to have good sexual harassment policies but also that employers enforce the policies and that employees understand them. Many of the young people are in their first jobs and are trying to figure out what is normal workplace behavior. Most employers have a sexual harassment policy, but they must ensure that it is in a language and/or format their employees understand.” In addition to filing suits on behalf of teen employees, the EEOC has made efforts to educate the younger workers before they enter the work force. In September 2004, the EEOC launched its year-long Youth at Work Initiative, teaming with schools, employers and youth organizations to teach teenagers nationwide about their rights on the job. According to the EEOC vice chair, “We want to send some signals to the business community � to say, when you hire these young people, you have a responsibility to also protect them.” So, what should the prudent employer do to prevent against these kinds of claims? First, ensure that the organization’s anti-harassment policy is up to date and includes a very clear complaint procedure that explains what employees are to do in the event they feel subjected to inappropriate or harassing conduct. Second, train existing employees about the importance of harassment prevention and explain to them what constitutes inappropriate behavior. Finally, make sure the incoming teenage employees not only understand these policies and participate in a similar training program (that also makes clear that they cannot engage in inappropriate behavior themselves), but impress upon these younger workers their right to avail themselves of the complaint procedure. Yes, it is only April, but the summer is quickly approaching. Employers, you must be ready for the introduction of teenaged employees in their workplace. Please take heed. If you do not prepare for these younger workers’ arrival, you could be opening yourself up to liability for harassment claims brought by the kids or on their behalf by the EEOC. You may learn, the hard way, that it could hurt you more than it hurts them. Michael S. Cohen is an associate in the employment services practice group of Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen. He has trained employees throughout the country on subjects including harassment prevention, workplace diversity, performance evaluations and workplace violence. He has counseled employers on compliance with federal and state anti-discriminatory laws, workplace violence, substance abuse, and hiring and termination practices. He has conducted investigations into claims of harassment and has drafted employee handbooks, employment agreements and separation agreements.

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