Sexual Harassment of Teenage Workers: Some Considerations for Human Resource Professionals

Dr. Susan M. Stewart, Department of Management, Western Illinois University–Quad Cities, Moline, IL and Sr. Consulting Psychologist for Management Resource Group, Ltd.

Sexual harassment is a topic that has been addressed by human resource professionals in training workshops and company policies for quite some time. Often the focus is on sexual harassment directed toward adult workers, whereas the specific topic of teenage sexual harassment is one that needs to be more clearly addressed, especially given the number of lawsuits now being filed by young workers. The purpose of this article is to (1) discuss the rights and responsibilities of teenage workers with regard to sexual harassment, (2) focus on the psychological, physical, and behavioral effects on teenage victims, (3) share legal issues including recent court cases involving teenagers, and (4) generate ideas for future research and organizational actions to address this phenomenon.

Sexual harassment is an important workplace issue that has been clearly defined in the United States (U.S.) by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and various courts for some time (i.e., Williams v. Saxbe, 1976). Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provides the main framework prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment. Importantly, sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination because it is based on whether the victim can demonstrate that he or she was subjected to discriminatory treatment because of his or her gender. The EEOC (C.F.R. 1604, p. 11) defines sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Many employers believe they adequately address sexual harassment in their workplaces because they have policies in place and provide training workshops on the topic. However, recent high-profile harassment allegations against leading figures in entertainment, media, business, and politics has served as a wakeup call for human resource professionals, senior leaders, company shareholders and customers alike. They are not asking "Where do we start?" but rather "What more can we do?"

One way to answer this question is to address the specific problem of sexual harassment involving teenage workers. Like adults, working adolescents are protected from sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The lack of attention to this group is surprising given that these individuals are active and growing participants in the labor market. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for July 2017 (historically the highest month for youth employment) report that 6.15 million teenagers between the ages of 16-19 were employed which translates to 42.5% of young people. In the same month, 20.9 million workers between the ages of 16-24 were employed which translates to 54.8% of young people, a figure that is up by 1.6 percentage points from a year earlier. It is important to note that the actual number of teenage workers is likely to be even higher given that these data do not include informal “freelance” employment such as housekeeping, lawn mowing, and babysitting.

Hence, the focus of this article is on the topic of teenage workers given their unique working situation. First, they are often perceived as easy targets for sexual harassment; that is, they are workers who are young, typically unmarried, often work part-time, have low seniority status, and are frequent users of social media where sexual comments and requests are made. Second, some research demonstrates that the psychological security and physical safety of these young people may be at risk. Third, the number of lawsuits filed by young workers is rising. And finally, often employers do not pay enough attention to the fact that teenage workers are far different from adult employees and do not tailor their adult-oriented workplace policies and practices to account for these differences (Bible, 2008).