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Young employees are easy prey for sexual harassers

It's easy to dismiss teens' complaints about their coworkers giving them a hard time, but there may actually be some substance behind those gripes. An Illinois State University study found that 54 percent of teenage girls and 37 percent of boys had been sexually harassed on the job. The low-paying, entry-level positions that teens are drawn to have a higher incidence of lewd comments, sexist comments or jokes, disparaging remarks and unwanted sexual advances. Unfortunately for those teens, their situation is often ignored for all the wrong reasons.

"We suspect that adolescents may be targeted more frequently than adults given their relatively low power and status in the workplace," said study lead author Kimberly Schneider. In addition, teens often don't know what kind of conduct is illegal or how to go about reporting it. Young people are also concerned about social status, so being perceived as a "squealer" or "rat" is a further disincentive. OK, so a kid is unhappy at her minimum-wage job, so what's the big deal? Actually, it is a big deal because the researchers found that young women harassed on the job are slower to develop job skills, perform poorly in school, and are often soured on life in the workforce.

The study found the problem is not just kids teasing other kids. Older supervisors and managers have power over the teen employees, either real or perceived. If the sexual conduct is coming from someone who can retaliate, the teen is even less likely to do something about it; they just try to cope. Not a good idea, say the researchers. Teens who try to get through a serious harassment problem alone often blame themselves for the situation, and in extreme cases the adolescent may turn to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors.

The word of warning to employers is this: Train your managers to behave properly and monitor that behavior rigorously. Also train your young employees to understand what is wrong and illegal, and give them a simple way to report misconduct without fear of retaliation. Employers often forget that sexual harassment and sex discrimination lawsuits don't have an age restriction. A wronged teen can cost a company a pile of money in a civil suit, the same as an adult. Just because they're kids doesn't mean they don't have rights and the law on their side.

Source: Business News Daily, "Teens more likely to face sexual harassment on the job,:" Chad Brooks, Dec. 26, 2012

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