Recently, Taco Bell paid $350,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation suit arising from two teen employees' claims that a manager raped them. This case has lessons for all employers of teens whether in food service, at libraries or movie theaters, or other workplaces. Sexual harassment claims by teen employees carry significant economic and reputational liability.

The Taco Bell male manager allegedly raped two female teenage employees. The manager pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and the EEOC filed suit against the employer on behalf of both employees. Taco Bell entered into a consent decree in which it agreed to (1) pay the two teens $350,000, (2) train its employees, supervisors, and managers on harassment, retaliation, and its reporting procedure, and (3) never employ the manager in the future.

Teen employees, viewed as vulnerable, are sympathetic plaintiffs. Therefore, significant settlement sums may be an attractive alternative to protracted litigation that may end before a jury. Preventing sexual harassment of teens has special challenges. Because teens are more likely to work part-time, temporarily, or seasonally, they may miss periodic anti-harassment training and may not carefully review handbooks or policies. Teenagers may also be less likely to understand what constitutes improper workplace behavior and be more reluctant to report sexual (or other unlawful) harassment.

Employers may be held liable for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or state civil rights laws. In some states, they may be subject to additional liability under such theories as negligent hiring and supervision or intentional infliction of emotional distress. (The worker's compensation exclusivity principle may shield employers from these claims in some states.) If the harasser is held criminally liable, there is no shield for the publication of the employer's identity in the press and public documents.

If you employ teens, take extraordinary preventive measures:

  • Conduct background checks and do not hire or continue to employ anyone convicted of sex crimes or who have pending charges of sex crimes. Seek legal counsel in these situations as some state laws prohibit employment decisions based on convictions or arrests.
  • Prohibit romantic relationships between teen and adult employees regardless of whether they appear consensual. Some minors may not legally consent to sexual intercourse, and even if they can, the appearance of an adult manager's failing to maintain appropriate professional boundaries may be damaging.
  • Provide discrimination, harassment, and retaliation training and handbooks and policies to all with supervisory authority and make clear their liability and responsibility.
  • Place special emphasis on your Equal Employment Opportunity policy during orientation of teen employees and include teens in regular employee updates and training on your business' commitment to a harassment-free workplace.
  • Ensure your reporting procedure is posted, is understandable by the typical teenager, clearly identifies to whom to report and how, and allows the teen to bypass the alleged harasser when reporting.