R.W., age 16, worked at Land of Illusion, a haunted theme park. She reported to Brett Oakley — 48 years old — the park’s owner and a friend of her dad. R.W. claimed that while at work one night, Oakley began discussing with her whether she uses birth control, feigned shock that she was still a virgin, and offered to take her to a hotel in Kentucky “for the experience of a lifetime,” to “show her what real sex is like.”
In Ward v. Oakley (Butler Ct. App. 10/28/13) [pdf], the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer. Even though the court concluded that the alleged harassment constituted one single incident, it was sufficiently severe such that a jury could conclude that it constituted a hostile work environment.
The lack of multiple incidents must be balanced against the objective severity of Oakley's alleged conduct. Here, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Ward, a 16-year-old girl was subjected to a thinly veiled solicitation for sex by a long-time, close family friend who was 32 years her senior…. As Oakley was the owner of the company, there was no one for R.W. to turn to for redress. Oakley placed R.W. in the untenable position of choosing between continued exposure to Oakley or jeopardizing her employment at Land of Illusion and that of Ward and her stepmother. This conduct eclipses the threshold of severity required to defeat summary judgment.
Do you employee teens in your workplace? If so, consider these nine tips from the EEOC on how to combat sexual harassment facing our youngest workers:
- Encourage open, positive and respectful interactions with young workers.
- Remember that awareness, through early education and communication, is the key to prevention.
- Establish a strong corporate policy for handling complaints.
- Provide alternate avenues to report complaints and identify appropriate staff to contact.
- Encourage young workers to come forward with concerns and protect from retaliation employees who report problems or otherwise participate in EEO investigations.
- Post company policies on discrimination and complaint processing in visible locations, such as near the time clock or break area, or include the information in a young worker’s first paycheck.
- Clearly communicate, update, and reinforce discrimination policies and procedures in a language and manner young workers can understand.
- Provide early training to managers and employees, especially front-line supervisors.
- Consider hosting an information seminar for the parents or guardians of teens working for the organization.
Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.