Adobe stock

Matters of sexual harassment or abuse — both in the workplace or directed at child clients — rank among the least favorite for anyone to face.

However, for younger, less-experienced employees, it can pose particular challenges. Regardless of the industry, research has shown that staffers in their teens present two challenges: They are less confident and therefore more hesitant to report problematic behavior; and they don’t always understand the nuances that distinguish appropriate behavior from inappropriate. For instance, they may expect people to behave the same in the workplace as their friends did in school.

Just through their job alone, most young lifeguards have displayed a higher-than-average maturity level. Using certain strategies, managers can help them gain the skills to gracefully manage these situations as well.

Here, experts from several disciplines offer advice for training young employees on this most sensitive subject matter.

Focus on inappropriate workplace behavior, not just the law.

It’s easy to become mired in definitions and the letter of the law. But that alone is not enough.

Other than the more obvious, egregious examples, it can become difficult to predict whether a court would categorize a particular episode as sexual harassment or comprising a hostile workplace, especially without legal training.

For this reason, Shawn DeRosa, an aquatics consultant and attorney, often sees misrepresentations take place in the training sessions he witnesses. Of course, managers want to use examples, but sometimes they don’t accurately reflect behavior that would be considered illegal. And while certain actions may not violate law, you don’t want them taking place on your property.

So he has a solution. “I really try to downplay some of the legal definitions of what a hostile work environment is and instead focus on behaviors that are appropriate for the workplace,” says the owner of Orlando, Fla.-based DeRosa Aquatic Consulting.

Thoroughly explore the gray area.

Generally speaking, even less-experienced employees recognize actions that clearly cross the line to inappropriate or even criminal, these experts say.

These trainees know that an older supervisor should not flirt with or date a younger subordinate. And, of course, they become alarmed when an adult pays inappropriate attention or has a questionable relationship with an unrelated child.

While it is crucial to cover such blatant examples in training, younger employees may need more help recognizing less obvious infractions. For this reason, Whitney Benedetti and her management staff at Rochester Athletic Club in Rochester, Minn., provide plenty of examples — most of which have occurred at the facility.

In one case, a gossip session between two coworkers took a graphic turn when they began discussing sexual relationships between some of their friends. This took place at the reception desk, in front of a third worker. The bystander became uncomfortable, reported the incident, and management decided it was problematic enough to terminate the instigator of the conversation.

This outcome may surprise some who don’t yet understand how stringent and far-reaching sexual-harassment policies can be, so it does a good job illustrating the gravity of such seemingly innocuous behavior.

“That’s a form of sexual harassment, and we have a zero-tolerance policy,” says Benedetti, youth programming and aquatics director of the club. “They’re used to talking about who’s dating whom ... and it crossed a line that they just didn’t see coming, because they overshared details.”

When discussing child sexual abuse, explain symptoms.

It’s unfortunate but true: Most child predators will not get caught in the act. They have become expert at performing egregious acts out of view and secretly grooming their targets.

Trainers should explain this and review the signals that may indicate something criminal. In addition to the concerning behavior of the adult, staffers may notice changes in behavior or disposition in regular child visitors. In addition to talk or actions that are unduly sexual for the age, children may also display depression, eating disorders and other signs of distress.

It also helps to rely heavily on the facility rules regarding how adults interact with children.

“It’s important to train staff [to watch for] people breaking really clearly laid out child-protective ground rules,” says John Feasel, corporate counsel for The Redwoods Group, a Morrisville, N.C.-based insurance firm whose specialties include aquatics. “So if an organization has a rule saying adults should not have children [other than their own] sitting on their laps, and a lifeguard or staff member sees an adult with a child on their lap who is not their own, that’s something that should be reported or called out and stopped.”

Take steps to assuage hesitance in reporting.

Most employees, regardless of the age group, dread the notion of reporting inappropriate or even predatory behavior.

Studies have shown that younger workers are even less likely to face these problems head-on. This is true whether they have witnessed aggression against somebody else or been victimized themselves.

This can especially apply to suspected child predatory behavior, largely because of the gravity such an accusation carries. “I think the fear for many younger people is they don’t want to be wrong — they don’t want to file a report stating a child is being abused when in fact they might not be,” DeRosa says. “The fear of being wrong and what that means to the family often might cause someone to think twice about reporting.”

The key is to take some of the pressure off, so reporting seems less intimidating, while simultaneously emphasizing the absolute necessity and importance of taking action. “I always suggest that people trust their gut,” Feasel says. “If they see something that makes them feel uncomfortable or looks or feels strange, it’s important to report those things or insert themselves into those uncomfortable situations.

“Because no harm comes from stopping a situation that potentially is not abusive, but there’s a lot of harm that comes from saying, ‘Oh, that’s none of my business,’ if it was actually an abusive situation.”

Feasel suggests encouraging the same rule that lifeguards use if they believe a swimmer is in distress: If you don’t know, go.

There’s something of a cultural habit that staffers must release, especially when it comes to addressing potential childhood sexual abuse, says Steve Mandell, an educational outreach specialist for Darkness to Light, a child sexual abuse prevention nonprofit based in Charleston, S.C. We tend to require evidence before we act. While that makes perfect sense in many situations, it can unduly prevent needed action in this context.

“When it comes to child sexual abuse, you must understand the notion of reasonable suspicion,” Mandell says. “[And] when you engage the authorities in that conversation, you’re not convicting anybody — all you’ve done is asked them to provide a service, to open an investigation. So they should learn that they only need to have reasonable suspicion, and to trust authorities.”

To make the process less daunting for inexperienced employees, especially when it comes to potential child sexual abuse, encourage them to seek guidance from a manager, supervisor or team lead. Besides helping younger workers over the hump, these experts find that it makes sense to allow higher-ups to investigate and decide the next action, given the serious nature of these instances, and the legal requirements to report them in many states.

When it comes to behavior that translate into sexual harassment or contribute to a hostile work environment, Benedetti also likes to keep an open-door policy. Her crew especially struggles with reporting on members of the club. Maybe the worker misinterpreted the client’s words. Or maybe that conversation they heard among coworkers isn’t really considered sexual harassment. They don’t want to make a mountain out of a mole hill. So Benedetti encourages her staff to ask so they can decide if any action needs to be taken.

There is another part of the equation: Assuring workers that they will be protected if victimized. “What really expresses to that employee that that behavior is not tolerated is to have a senior member of management speak and let them known that,” says Sharon L. Sellers, SHRM-SCP, president of SLS Consulting in Santee, S.C. She has seen managers of large hotels assure employees that clients will be removed if they sexually harass an employee, even clients who are staying in the presidential suite.

Help employees build muscle memory

Just as lifeguards train tirelessly so they instinctually kick into action when needed, so should they build muscle memory to prepare for scenarios that may have a sexually charged and, oftentimes, emotional nature.

Present them with various scenarios and explain what to say in these instances, Benedetti says. Employ role playing.

When presenting situations, keep in mind the hectic environment in which these episodes take place. For example, a lifeguard may see something, but can’t leave his or her post. So explain clearly whom he or she should contact and how.

If a worker must call a manager while in earshot of someone involved in the incident, make sure they know what to say so they get the higher-up’s attention without alerting those around them.

In one case, a particularly large adult man was saying strange things to the 16-year-old who was supervising the area at Benedetti’s facility. It was only the two of them in that space. As it turned out, the behavior was caused by developmental issues, but the worker didn’t know this, so she wanted to get out as soon as possible. She asked for permission to leave, but didn’t know how to convey the problem with the client in the area.

“She could have pulled the [supervisor] aside and said, ‘I have a question about something. Can we go here so I can ask you?’” Benedetti says. “Then they could have gotten out of earshot from the member.”

Mind your media

When it comes to educating younger employees, handing them a pamphlet or presenting a long, dry talk will not effectively convey your messages regarding workplace sexual harassment or childhood sexual abuse. Let’s face it: That’s not anybody’s favorite thing, but younger generations in particular have been raised with different expectations.

For this reason, trainers should know when to use in-person training, when to use videos or reading material, and when to insert fun and interactivity.

To discuss various scenarios, it’s best to use in-person training. This way, the presenter can answer questions and staffers can share feedback. This also presents a time to use interactive technology, DeRosa says. He likes to employ smart-phone voting or survey apps: He presents a scenario and several potential solutions. Employees then go to their app and choose which is right.

But videos and printed materials also have their place. Videos provide a way to convey sensitive information that can be viewed in private. Staffers should also have access to websites or printed materials that clearly outline rules and procedures, and provide needed contact information to use if a situation arises.