Reduce Summer Interns’ Vulnerability to Harassment

Train interns, not just managers

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. April 26, 2018

​Managerial training is essential in preventing the harassment of summer interns, but intern training is also needed, as they are vulnerable at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy.

The bigger the power differential in an employment relationship, the greater the risk of sexual harassment, said Paul Buchanan, an attorney with Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan in Portland, Ore. "A summer intern is almost by definition without power."

Interns sometimes harass each other, added Katherin Nukk-Freeman, co-founder of SHIFT HR Compliance Training in Chatham, N.J.

"The #MeToo movement affects all categories of employees, including interns," said Jovita Foster, an attorney with Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis. "Take the time to educate both managers and interns about harassment, how it is reported and the company's expectations" about avoiding harassment.

Training Interns

Someone high up in the organization should discuss the harassment policy and complaint procedures with interns, Buchanan suggested. "An HR person to whom complaints can be directed should make her or himself known to the interns so they need not contact a stranger to raise a concern," he said.

On day one, the employer needs to inform interns about how it expects them to behave during the summer and how the employer should behave toward them, said Lauren Kulpa, an attorney with Perkins Coie in Dallas.

Let them know that respect in the workplace is important to the company, Anne Yuengert, an attorney with Bradley in Birmingham, Ala., said. "As one of my clients put it, 'We believe we have a good culture that respects everyone—if you are experiencing a different culture, let us know.' "

Be Wary of Relaxed Standards of Communication

Many employers host social events for summer interns, Nukk-Freeman noted. Sometimes the events are offsite and involve alcohol. These environments are usually more susceptible to relaxed standards of communication and conduct and could be more prone to instances of harassment, she said.

Kulpa recommended that employers not have an event with alcohol if they have interns who are younger than 21 years old.

An intern might not say anything about witnessing or experiencing harassing or inappropriate behavior because he or she doesn't want to ruffle feathers. Or the intern may think that he or she doesn't have the same right as an employee to be free from workplace harassment, even though the intern does, Kulpa added.

Managerial Training

Train managers to treat interns with respect and professionalism, Yuengert noted.

[SHRM Online HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

"I would recommend a strict policy against managers dating interns," she said. The company doesn't want anyone to think they will be treated better if they date the boss.

"An internship program should be fundamentally an education program—not a means of securing cheap labor," Buchanan said. "Managers should consider how they can make the interns' experience worthwhile for the interns, rather than focusing on their own short-term benefits."

If employers have been considering revamping their anti-harassment policies and training in light of the #MeToo movement, it may make sense to do so before summer interns arrive, said Elisa Lintemuth, an attorney with Dykema in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Unless an effective policy is implemented at all levels of the company, "the company may come to learn of highly damaging, highly problematic conduct that could and should have been prevented, or properly investigated and addressed, months or even years down the line," said Sonya Rosenberg, an attorney with Neal Gerber Eisenberg in Chicago.

High-School Students

It's not just summer interns that HR professionals needs to concern themselves with, but also high-school students securing summer or temporary jobs, according to Ingrid Fredeen, J.D., vice president of NavexEngage, the online learning content service for Navex Global in Portland, Ore.

"High-school students face additional challenges in that they are often in service, convenience and retail jobs," she noted. "Many of these industries suffer from higher rates of harassment and abuse, including abuse at the hands of customers."

She said there may be fewer managers available, or the managers may be the harassers. "Access to and knowledge about a 1-800 reporting line is critical for these employees," she said. If no line is available, those filling the summer jobs need to understand an organization's internal reporting process.

Students filling summer jobs or internships should be made aware that they should call on HR immediately if an interaction is concerning, Buchanan said. 


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