The Problem: Workplace Bullying, Discrimination, or Harassment
Last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took in 99,922 total charges of discrimination. Teens are most likely to encounter it in some form of sexual harassment, but discrimination can manifest itself in other ways too. Whether it's an abusive boss, mean-spirited coworkers, or a jerky customer, Slomka says, "parents need to let teens know that bullying should never be tolerated."
The signs: Your teen is crying a lot, complaining about hostile customers, or panicking when sharing a shift with a particular supervisor or coworker.
How to help: "Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe it creates a hostile or offensive work environment," explains Justine Lisser, a senior attorney-adviser at the EEOC. Parents should instruct teens on how to react in these situations: Giggling out of nervousness when a supervisor propositions them, for example, could come off as flirting. Rather, they must be firm, first confronting the offender and, if that fails, moving their complaint up the chain of command (and over to the EEOC, if necessary).
When to get involved: "Teens have to be able to deal with these situations on their own or they will forever be the victim," says Jennie Withers, author of Hey, Get a Job! (Caxton). Parents can accompany their child if they need to report an abusive situation to a regional manager or HR department, but they "should let them do most of the talking," says Withers. If there is still no redress, allow your teen to quit the job and file a formal charge (be aware of the statute of limitations—usually 180 to 300 days).
The Problem: Hazardous or Illegal Working Conditions
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, between 60 and 70 teens die every year from work-related injuries; thousands more end up in the E.R. "It's the employer's responsibility not to ask workers to do illegal or unsafe things," says Carol Runyan, director of the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center.
The signs: Your child seems stressed or burned-out, spends a lot of time at work unsupervised, or uses dangerous equipment like box crushers or slicers.
How to help: Make sure the employers are following the law, advises Runyan, referring to federal and state child labor rulings that limit how long and how late teens can work, and what types of tasks they may perform. Start by asking your teen if he has received on-the-job safety training, then feel out his day-to-day routine. Teens shouldn't close shops by themselves at night or work alone for any length of time. Lack of proper adult supervision not only can lead to workplace injuries, but may also tempt some teens to misuse company property, invite friends in for "freebies," or even shoplift.
When to get involved: Because teens are trying desperately to fit in at an adult workplace, it's imperative that parents don't attempt to talk to the employer on behalf of their kid. Instead, offer suggestions on what to say and give them permission to leave the job if the situation doesn't improve. "Teens need assurance that they aren't failing or giving up," says Withers. "It's actually the opposite. If they leave a job where they are being taken advantage of, they are demonstrating courage and ensuring their future success and happiness."