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March 14, 2006 > Watercooler counsel

Watercooler counsel

Protecting Teen Workers

by Rich Proulx

Q: I employ teens and am not generally on the premises. I'm concerned about sexual harassment. What steps can I take to protect my employees and myself?
-Being Careful in Fremont

A: A little prevention can save a lot of headaches. Establishing an effective anti-harassment policy can be an important first step in preventing problems - from workplace tensions to illegal behavior that could put you at risk of a lawsuit. Make sure you clearly communicate that policy. Train managers, supervisors and employees on what actions may constitute harassment, what to do if they are harassed, and how to handle a report of harassment.

Of course, you cannot be all-knowing, especially when you are often away from the worksite. But, you can create an effective internal complaints procedure that permits employees to complain to any manager. After doing all this groundwork, be sure to monitor the enforcement of your anti-harassment policy and evaluate your supervisors' performance based on their enforcement of the policy. Demonstrating that you are approachable and care about protecting your employee's rights will go a long way. Resource for employers of teens: contact EEOC for a free Youth@Work presentation to your local merchants association.

Q: My business doesn't have a sexual harassment policy. How do I write one? Do I need a lawyer?
Jacob L.

A: There's a lot to consider when creating a policy. The policy should be in writing and well disseminated to your staff. You should make it clear you will not tolerate any harassment, and specifically note each basis of harassment. (Federal statutes specify not only sex, but also race, color, religion, national origin, age 40 and older, disability, and retaliation for protected activity. California law also covers ancestry, medical condition, sexual orientation and marital status.) The policy should explain in detail what is considered prohibited conduct, emphasize the seriousness of harassment, and state that it is considered unacceptable conduct and will not be tolerated. The anti-harassment policy should make it very clear that employees will be protected for making complaints or assisting in investigations.

You should establish a complaint procedure that allows employees to bypass their supervisors and complain to other officials. You need assure confidentiality to the extent possible. The policy should promise a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation and assure immediate and appropriate corrective action - and you should plan on delivering that. As to whether you need an attorney, that's your call. It depends on whether you are one of those people who, when you need to install a new faucet, reads a "how-to" book or calls a plumber. If you are one of the former, through their Training Institute, the EEOC publishes a helpful guide to creating a harassment policy called "Workplace Harassment Issues," that includes sample policies.

Have you hugged your secretary today? Don't! It could be sexual harassment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 2.9 million minors ages 15 through 17 work during school months, a number that rises to 4 million during the summers. Send your questions to, whose day job is Supervisory Investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Identifying information in the questions may be fictional.

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