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Summer interns and students are vulnerable to sexual harassment

Whether you're a student working one of your first jobs or an intern gaining valuable knowledge and experience, you should know that you have the right to a workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment. Unfortunately, many people either don't realize that fact or are afraid to stand up for their rights.

The risk of sexual harassment increases with the power differential between the two parties. Interns and students are low on the company's hierarchy, so they often lack protection. Even worse, they may experience illegal retaliation if they complain.

What can companies do to prevent sexual harassment of students and interns?

Companies that hire students and interns need to develop policies and trainings that specifically address these workers. Luckily, many companies are currently revamping their anti-sexual harassment policies and training in response to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Recognize that young workers may need additional help and basic information. Describe the work environment your company wants and then set expectations for the students and interns themselves. This should help prevent the students or interns from harassing each other, which does occur.

Your training should also cover what actions interns or students should take if they do experience discrimination or harassment. A specific HR representative should introduce him- or herself to the workers so that they don't have to contact a stranger if they have concerns.

Develop policies that limit the most common harassment situations. Many companies host off-site social events for interns. These may involve alcohol and relaxed conduct, which can lead to behavior that is inappropriate in the workplace. Employers should avoid offering alcohol at these events if any of the interns are under 21. They should also consider a policy prohibiting any dating between staff -- especially supervisors -- and interns.

What should students and interns know about sexual harassment?

Discrimination and harassment laws do apply to interns and students, even in temporary or summertime positions. Retaliation for making a good faith complaint is also illegal, although it does occur. You can limit the possibility of these problems, however.

Once you have been hired, it's a good idea to ask about the company's culture, anti-discrimination and harassment policies, and who to ask for help.

If you end up experiencing something that may be discrimination or harassment, don't rush into a complaint. If you decide to make one, it's important to think carefully about what you want to say and how to present it effectively.

Consider discussing your situation with an employment law attorney. A lawyer can assess the situation and give you advice about how to proceed in a way that will be effective and limit the risk of retaliation.

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