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EEOC Responds To Sexual Harassment Complaints From Teens

Finish Line Tailors Policy To Target Younger Workers

LINDSAY MARCISZ WAS thrilled to land a job as a ticket-taker at California-based UltraStar Cinemas in 2001. Finally the 16-year-old student thought she would enjoy some economic freedom during her last few years of high school. But Marcisz soon discovered that working at the movie theater wasn’t going to be as carefree as she had expected.

Almost immediately after she started, two of the theater’s male managers began making sexual comments and lewd gestures toward Marcisz and three of her female co-workers, also teenagers. Concerned that if she complained she would lose her job, and her new income, Marcisz initially said nothing—even though she often feared going to work.

But when one of the men physically assaulted Marcisz, dislocating her shoulder, she told her parents how the two managers had been treating her and her co-workers. Her parents complained to the theater’s upper management, but the company took no action. Feeling they had no other choice, Marcisz and the three other girls left their jobs and in 2003 filed a sexual harassment suit against the company—Marcisz et al. v. UltraStar Cinemas. In April a jury awarded Lindsay Marcisz and her co-plaintiffs $850,000 in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages.

Marcisz is only one of hundreds of male and female teenage workers who are harassed at work everyday. Currently, there are sexual harassment suits pending on behalf of teenage employees against Taco Bell, Steak n Shake, Subway and Jack in the Box—to name only a few.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), teens are increasingly bringing sexual harassment complaints against their employers. Only 2 percent of harassment complaints filed with the commission involved teenagers in 2001. But the number has been steadily rising. And in 2004, teenage workers made up 8 percent of those complaints. The EEOC expects that percentage will be even higher in 2005.

“The commission’s position is that one complaint of sexual harassment by a teen is one too many,” says Naomi Earp, vice chair of the EEOC.

While the EEOC is doing its part to respond to the increase in teen complaints by recently launching Youth at Work—a program designed to educate teens about appropriate workplace behavior—employers also need to step up to the plate. Or, like UltraStar, they could face substantial judgments.

A Day In The Life

Paying special attention to younger workforces is one way to ward off lawsuits.

“There are plenty of reasons teenagers are more vulnerable to this type of treatment than other workers,” says Tracy O’Flaherty, a partner in Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office. O’Flaherty specializes in sexual harassment litigation and training. “When companies understand what makes teens more vulnerable, they can more effectively address the issues.”

Experts on both sides of the table agree that one reason for teens’ vulnerability is that they are inexperienced and often don’t understand what is and isn’t appropriate workplace behavior.

“They are unseasoned and don’t know their rights,” says Larry Organ, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs in Marcisz. “And, unfortunately, some managers have exploited that.”

The most common industries in which teens work—food service and retail—are often casual environments that foster a social atmosphere. “Drawing a line of distinction between appropriate behavior at school, in the mall and in Internet chat rooms, and what is appropriate at work, is not always clear to young workers,” Earp says.

But even if teens know someone at work is treating them inappropriately, they often won’t report it because they don’t believe part-time workers are protected.

“Teens are much more leery than adults are about complaining because they simply don’t know they have the same workplace rights as grown-ups or that their protection is the same as someone who works full-time,” Earp explains. 

Because so many teens work on a part-time or temporary basis, opportunities for a company to educate them on sexual harassment policies aren’t always readily available.

“When teens aren’t exposed to the education and training they need, they may not develop key relationships of trust with co-employees, supervisor and management such that they can communicate issues of harassment,” O’Flaherty says.

But according to the experts, education and training is the most effective safeguard against legal liability. And it’s important that companies make time to train their employees whether they are full-time, part-time or temporary.

Targeting Teens

Indianapolis-based The Finish Line, a sports apparel retailer, has always taken training on harassment and discrimination seriously. Of its 12,000 employees, more than 4,000 are teenagers. And none of the company’s management or employees has been accused of sexually harassing teenage workers, according to the company.

“Our educational tools speak directly to teens,” says Doug Cohen, The Finish Line’s executive vice president, general counsel and secretary. “They respond to that and learn from it.”

Although The Finish Line doesn’t have a separate education program on sexual harassment for its teen workers, the company tailored its training videos to the specifics of its business, complete with young actors wearing Finish Line uniforms dealing with difficult situations in stores.

“It was important to us that we didn’t just show our teenage workers some standardized video that they would think is just another part of the process that would ultimately get them to their jobs,” Cohen says. “We want them to see things happening to Finish Line employees wearing Finish Line clothes in Finish Line stores. They relate to that.”

The second step of the company’s training process is a group discussion. Finish Line trainers encourage new employees to ask questions about the video and engage in conversations about how they would handle various situations. At the end of the training session, the employees take a 20-question quiz on the company’s sexual harassment policy.

“That way we know they are definitely walking out of the orientation armed with the information they need,” he says.

While Finish Line continues to do its part internally, the EEOC has taken steps to address the issue on a larger scale.

A Time For Change

The commission’s Youth at Work outreach program helps teenagers and young adults understand appropriate workplace behavior by providing information on its Web site, offering educational events and partnering with industry groups such as the National Restaurant Association and National Retail Federation.

“This is a useful resource for employers,” O’Flaherty says. “They can go online and identify exactly what issues the EEOC is focusing on.”

Although Youth at Work is a useful tool for employers experts believe companies—especially in industries that employ a lot of teenagers—also  should focus on making their policies as targeted as The Finish Line’s.

First, companies need to examine their existing sexual harassment policies and ensure they are adequate.

“There are often changes in the law,” says Christine Samsel, a sexual harassment defense litigator and a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer Feld in Washington, D.C. “You want to make sure that the policies are up to date and the employees are actually following the procedures internally.”

O’Flaherty agrees, claiming if policies aren’t communicated through training and enforced through discipline when they’re violated, they are useless. Experts suggest that companies regularly train employees on sexual harassment because the policy then becomes a part of the company’s culture.

“It’s up to the employers to offer adequate training, implement strong policies and enforce them consistently,” Organ says. “That means firing people when a company’s internal investigation finds that inappropriate conduct was indeed going on in the workplace. Only then do they have grounds to defend themselves against sexual harassment suits.”

It was too late for UltraStar to heed Organ’s sound advice.

Although the company has appealed the $6.85 million judgment, UltraStar filed for bankruptcy in late April. Organ says as long as companies refuse to acknowledge a problem, plaintiffs will continue to win these suits.

“Juries find this type of behavior absolutely reprehensible, and they are willing to punish companies for it,” Organ says. “That is a true advantage for plaintiffs bringing sexual harassment cases where there is strong evidence.”

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