teen.jpgYesterday I met two very smart 16-year-old girls who surprisingly knew little about what’s appropriate in the workplace.

I spoke at a local library about teens and work, and one of the parts of my presentation that intrigued the two teens I met the most was on workplace rights, including everything from being paid what you’re owed to sexual harassment.

I talked to them about minimum wage, and making sure you get paid overtime if you work overtime. And I also told them it was not cool if your manager pressures you to date him, or a co worker sends you sexually explicit text messages.

They both giggled a bit, and the one teen felt comfortable enough to ask me a question about a friend of hers who worked at a fast food restaurant.

The friend, she said, had seen something at work and wondered if it crossed the line. A male manager at the store, who was in his early twenties, told a female worker who was 16 that she had to clean up an area in the kitchen. The girl said she would get to it when she was finished cleaning another section he had asked her to clean but he wasn’t happy with her response.

He said, “you can either clean this up now or you can give me a blow job.”

For just a split second I sat there shocked, but I composed myself and quickly told the teen that what her friend witnessed was indeed sexual harassment.

The teen said, “I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or something.”

I said, “That’s not an appropriate joke, and no manager or co worker should be talking to anyone in that way.”

This scenario made me realize why there’s a growing problem with teens and sexual harassment at work. Some kids just don’t get it. They don’t get that idiots and perverts have no right to do this kind of stuff to teens, or anyone else for that matter.

I wrote about this problem earlier this year for MSNBC.com.

Getting girls and boys to report such acts has been a challenge because some teens are just too immature or ignorant of their rights. Others want to do well in those first gigs and not rock the boat.

“It continues to be an epidemic in many workplaces, restaurants, retails, etc., where young people work,” said Mary O’Neill, a regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the Phoenix district covering Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

Indeed, most teenagers never report such behavior, experts said, because many teens are either too embarrassed or just don’t realize that legally they don’t have to put up with such sleazy behavior.

E.J. Graff, associate director and senior researcher for Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, has long researched the issue of teens and harassment at work. She estimates based on government and independent reports that as many as 200,000 teens are harassed or assaulted at work every year.

“My sense from my reporting is there are sexual predators that figured out places where teens work in the summer are candy shops for them,” she said.

Making matters worse, many teens are more accessible than ever thanks to social networking sites and mobile devices, opening them up to more potential abuse.

The main line of defense I see is we the parents.

Clearly, it’s a good thing for kids to work. Quite a few studies show that having a paying jobs in your early teens can make you more confident and ultimately more successful in college and in your career. So that means parents need to step up to the plate and talk to their kids about what to expect in a workplace and also arm them with information about their rights, everything from harassment to wage and hours laws.

Depending on the age of a teen, there are strict guidelines on how many hours they can work and what they can do.

Here are some great links that can help:

* Information for parents from Schuster on teens and sexual harassment.
* Occupational Safety and Health’s Young workers site.
* The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour site for youth.
* For state laws go here.

Our teens are being bombarded with sexuality in music, TV, etc., and the only adult voices they hear lately about alternatives is from fringe nuts like Christine O’Donnell who tells kids they shouldn’t masturbate. You also have politicians such as soon-to-be California Governor Brown’s camp calling his opponent a whore.

Yes, the media plays this stuff up because it boosts ratings, but parents need to step in and tell kids about what’s right and wrong. The teen I mentioned above knew the “blow job” comment didn’t seem right, but a nudge from an adult reinforcing her gut feeling can make all the difference.

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