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Identifying sexual harassment in the workplace

March 10, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The story goes like this: a high school junior begins working at a local restaurant one summer. While she’s not in love with the job, she needs the money to pay for the college she plans on attending the following year. After a month working as a waitress, her manager approaches her. He says the restaurant’s overhead is too high and he needs to lay off a few employees.

“You know, if you and I started dating, I won’t have to fire you,” he tells the young teen.
Caught in an uncomfortable situation with the prospect of losing her job if she doesn’t follow her boss’s wishes, the high school junior feels she has no other choice. With no experience in dealing with blatant sexual harassment, the teen doesn’t know where to turn. She becomes sullen at home, and her parents aren’t sure why she’s experiencing mood changes. Her mother, in particular, grows worried that something is amiss at her daughter’s job when she cries every time she leaves for work.

It’s an anecdote that Tony Moulton has heard in one form or another many times. Moulton, the director of education and outreach at the Women’s Rape Crisis Center in Burlington, said teenagers working jobs essential to their livelihood face sexual harassment issues more often that what is reported to authorities. Much of the time, teens don’t know what harassment looks like or what they can do about it.

Moulton’s job entails reaching out to parents and teenagers to help them identify ways to stop sexual harassment and what avenues families can take to report such abuses.
“I’m a big proponent of doing as much as we can with preventative measures and identifying what sexual harassment is and letting teens and their parents know that it’s nobody’s fault,” said Moulton.

It’s a sentiment echoed by officials at The Office of the Attorney General of Vermont. Julio Thompson, director of the Attorney General’s civil rights unit, said early knowledge of what sexual harassment is helps prevent more egregious cases of sexual abuse and also lowers the potential for these types of crimes occurring.

Thompson said any time an employee or coworker makes an employee feel uncomfortable, it’s a form of harassment. Overt sexual proposals, inappropriate touching and threats to job security are some prime examples of sexual harassment in the workplace, Thompson said.

Thompson added that all employers in Vermont are required to post information about how to report sexual harassment within the company. Sometimes these problems are taken care of internally. Other times, teens don’t feel safe reporting harassment to their boss – especially if their boss is the one harassing.

“If they’re afraid of what to do, or need any form of guidance, they should call us,” Thompson said.

Amy Farr, a victim’s advocate with the Attorney General’s Office, said parents can be a huge help in stopping sexual harassment at their child’s job. Keeping in close communication with their teen, and letting them know they can talk about anything, goes a long way in stopping the problem, she said.

“A lot of times, teens don’t know what’s happening is a crime,” Farr said. “A lot of teens don’t report because they don’t think they’ll be believed or they don’t want to lose their job.”

Moulton said parents should be on the lookout for warning signs in their teenager as personality shifts sometimes signal trouble at work. He said a common message he hears from parents is that their once happy teenager turns quiet or combative before heading off to their job.

Moulton also suggests keeping communication lines open between parent and child. Discussing ahead of time what sexual harassment is, even before the teenager begins the job, goes a long way, Moulton added.

Sexual harassment doesn’t just occur at teens’ workplaces. They can also experience it within a school setting. There’s a blurry line between bullying and sexual harassment when taking place at schools, said Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, also known as the HRC. Both are unacceptable, he said.
Appel said each school is required to have two or more employees designated as point-persons for sexual harassment or bullying reports. If a teen experiences any form of harassment, they can tell adults, who are then required to investigate.

Appel said the HRC has limited authority in dealing with sexual harassment cases at a school level. If a school district ignores any reports of harassment, then the commission can step in and sometimes file charges. In fact, a court case between the HRC and the Cabot School District is currently moving forth, Appel said. He said that district didn’t go far enough in protecting a student who had been repeatedly sexually harassed.

He said schools have a “collective responsibility” to create a safe environment for all students. He said parents are more than welcome to contact the HRC with any reports of bullying or sexual harassment taking place within their teen’s school.

“There’s a responsibility for the adults to ensure safe working conditions and education conditions and respond appropriately,” Appel said.

In all cases of harassment, whether at work or school, Moulton said there needs to be a zero tolerance policy. He said bystanders who witness harassment should also have the courage to stand up and mitigate the action. Moulton added it takes all parties to create safe environments – employers, school officials, parents and teenagers.

“All it takes is one person to say, ‘It’s not OK,’” Moulton said.

For more information, contact the Women’s Rape Crisis Center’s 24-hour, confidential hotline at 863-1236, or visit the website at http://www.stoprapevermont.org/. More information can also be found at The Office of the Attorney General of Vermont at http://www.atg.state.vt.us/.