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Teenagers Need to Know About Harassment, How to Deal With It

May 23, 1999|AMY JOYCE | Amy Joyce writes for the Washington Post

Experts who study sexual harassment on the job cite one group of workers as especially vulnerable and especially ill-equipped to handle the problem: teenage girls.

In a recent survey by Teen People magazine, 20% of the 1,000 teenage girls with part-time or full-time jobs who were polled said they had been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ellen Bravo, director of 9 to 5, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization for working women, says teenagers often are not warned about the possibility of harassment and often do not know where to go for help.

"I think teens are very vulnerable to sexual harassment," she said, partly because many teens work in fields where sexual harassment is most prevalent--food service, clerical work and health care.

Also part of the problem, Bravo said, is that teens frequently are in jobs in which the person who hires them is also the person who pays them. If they aren't working for a company big enough to have a personnel department, teens may not know where to turn if harassment occurs.

"They're going to have less information on what's appropriate and [what's] not on the job," Bravo said. "They just try to think, 'How can I avoid [the harasser]?' "

About 7 million teenagers, 4.5 million of them girls, were employed in the U.S. last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Point of View Poll on Sexual Harassment done by Teen People found that of the teens who experienced sexual harassment:

* 65% said they were exposed directly to jokes or conversations about sex.

* 64% said they received frequent personal compliments or other flirtatious comments from bosses or co-workers.

* 47% said they were touched without their consent by bosses or co-workers.

* 37% said bosses or co-workers continually asked them for dates.

About 40% of the poll respondents reporting harassment said the harassment occurred frequently.


A letter published in the "Dear Abby" newspaper column in February drew attention to the issue. A 16-year-old girl said she had been hired for a part-time after-school job at a small company. Her parents were proud and happy that she was paid well and was permitted to do homework at the office, the girl said.

The problem? "My boss, a married man with three kids, is hugging, kissing and touching me in places he shouldn't be." The girl didn't know if she should quit--after all, her family thought she had a dream job.

Meg Lewis-Sidime, public affairs coordinator for 9 to 5, wrote a response to "Dear Abby" that included the nonprofit's phone number: (800) 522-0925. From that, the organization said, 9 to 5 received 800 calls in one week, many of them from teenagers.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the total number of sexual harassment lawsuits settled rose from 7,484 in 1992 to 17,115 in 1998, an indication that victims are becoming better informed about their legal options.

As for taking legal action against a harasser or his company, Bravo said many teens remain unaware of how to file a complaint or don't feel justified in complaining about a boss or other high-level person.

Young workers need to recognize that harassment is "illegal, and it's not their fault," Bravo said. "It's important for parents to give affirmation and immediately figure out if there are any channels at work--handbook, personnel policy"--to deal with the harassment.

Bravo offers some advice for victims:

* First, try to go through channels inside the company for help. If you feel you're not getting satisfaction, go to the EEOC or another government agency. Keep in mind that any government agency will probably ask you whether you tried to solve the problem inside the company.

* Document the situation as soon as you become aware of a pattern. Take detailed, dated notes.

* Get some support so you aren't facing the complaint process all on your own. If you'd prefer not to go to your parents, go to a school counselor or other trusted adult.

"There's no formula," Bravo said. "People have to do what they feel comfortable with. You don't always win if you stand up for yourself, but you don't win if you don't stand up for yourself."

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