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Companies face increased risks when employing teens

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Employers that hire teenage workers must take extra care in training the teens and their managers to avoid sexual harassment and the resulting significant potential for liability claims, experts say.

Teens, who often work as part-time or seasonal workers, often are neglected by employers that are more focused on their regular workers. Experts say while some of the same issues apply to all workers, including the need for training and establishing a complaint process, teenagers' youth and inexperience must be factored into employers' approach to this issue.

The cost to employers that neglect the issue can be hefty.

In late October, for instance, a federal district court jury in Rochester, N.Y. returned a $585,000 verdict against Cleveland-based Everdry Marketing & Management Services Inc., a national basement waterproofing company, on behalf of 13 young women-mostly teenagers still in high school-who were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment by male managers and salesmen.

The suit, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, described the sexual harassment as "especially egregious," involving numerous incidents over a four-year period, including one in which a 16-year-old was coerced into having her toes sucked by her male manager in front of her co-workers during her first day on the job. The jury concluded Everdry owed $325,000 in compensatory damages plus $260,000 in punitive damages.

While civil law regarding sexual harassment is the same for adults as it is for teenagers, courts recently have been taking the view that teens' ages should be considered in assessing liability and damages "because the balance of power is even more disparate when the employee is a teenager," said Elizabeth Grossman, New York-based EEOC regional attorney.

Furthermore, employees may face criminal charges for "engaging in any kind of a sexual or flirtatious relationship with a person who is a minor," said Katrina Campbell Randolph, general counsel for Washington-based Brightline Compliance L.L.C., which provides employment training.

The issue has received heightened attention given the scandal involving U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who resigned in September over reportedly sexually explicit e-mails sent to congressional pages-including an underage former page.

Since 2004, the EEOC has been promoting Youth@Work, a major educational and outreach program directed at teens. While the number of teen-connected EEOC suits has fallen from 28 in fiscal 2004 to 13 in fiscal year 2006, that does not reflect a decline in sexual harassment litigation, said Lucy Ann Galioto, New York-based vp at National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa., a unit of American International Group Inc. Rather, it reflects that "more people are going to state court, where usually there is no cap on compensatory and punitive damages," Ms. Galioto said.

The retail, restaurant and hospitality industries are among those most likely to hire teen workers. Companies, though, often exclude part-time and temporary employees from their training programs-usually the largest part of their teen workforce, said Shanti Atkins, president and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based ELT Inc., which provides employment law training programs.

Many teens "fall through the cracks," said Christine A. Samsel, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld L.L.P. in Washington.

Authority figures

One challenge employers face is that teenagers may be more intimidated by authority figures, more likely to endure inappropriate conduct and less likely to subsequently complain about it, say observers.

Teens are "used to answering to an authority figure without question, and they don't understand that in an adult world, there are appropriate ways to challenge authority" if there is harassment, discrimination or other mistreatment in the workplace, said Amy Worley, an employer attorney with Helms Mulliss & Wicker in Charlotte, N.C.

Furthermore, teens "are very scared to come forward about these issues and feel they just have to put up with it as the cost of having a job," said Debra Katz, an attorney with Washington-based Katz, Marshall & Banks L.L.P.

Another factor is that the teens' supervisors may be in their early 20s, "so it's a difficult group to manage," said Ms. Galioto.

During training, employers need to inculcate teens with a sense that "complaining is not only OK, it's encouraged, and they need to do that in a way teenagers can understand," Ms. Worley said.

"One best practice is to create a number of places to which an employee can complain, such as the human resources department as well as a toll-free number, so the teen does not have to worry about running into the complaint's recipient in the hall," Ms. Grossman said.

For instance, at The Finish Line USA Inc., a sports apparel retailer where most salespeople are teens, employees are told to contact their manager first if there is a case of sexual harassment, said Gary Cohen, executive vp and chief legal counsel for the Indianapolis-based chain.

But if that is inappropriate for any reason, the company has posters with a toll-free phone number to its human resource department as well as phone numbers for district and regional managers, said Mr. Cohen. The company takes this issue "very seriously," he said.

This is work-not school

Training also must stress that the teens are at work, not in school, said Ms. Worley. Young employees must "be taught that although high school has a sexually charged environment, they need not bring it into work," she said.

Michael S. Cohen, an attorney with Wolf, Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen L.L.P. in Philadelphia, agreed. Teens need to understand that they are not only protected by the company's policy and the law, "but restricted by it. This is not the classroom. It isn't campus. It's the workplace, and the employees need to conduct themselves accordingly," he said.

Managers also should be carefully trained. The manager must be told that having a pretty 16-year-old cashier does not give him license "to say something you would not say to a 40-year-old," said Ms. Worley.

"I worry about the assistant manager in a store or about the co-employee who thinks that because this is a teenager, that 'we can play around more,' it's really fun and games," said Ms. Randolph. In fact, to avoid potential problems, "you have to be more formal" in dealing with teens than you would be otherwise, she said.

Employers must also be sure employees understand that the company's anti-sexual harassment policy applies to all employees, regardless of the number of hours a week they work, Mr. Cohen said.

In addition, managers and supervisors must be trained to pass on complaints, said Mr. Cohen, who noted that several EEOC cases have involved instances in which managers ignored teens' complaints.

"That's the kind of thing the EEOC is going to jump all over," Mr. Cohen said.