The word spread quickly at the Washington Hilton Hotel when employes spotted a photograph of four of their coworkers in the latest edition of U.S. News and World Report.

The picture, which accompanied an article on unemployment among black teen-agers, shows the four men dressed in casual clothes standing on a street near a public telephone. The caption under the photograph reads: "For young blacks who are unemployed, many hours are spent hanging out on city streets."

The men who appear in the picture, all of whom are in their mid-20s, were employed at the Washington Hilton when the picture was taken last August--without their knowledge--at a community festival in the Adams Morgan area, according to their lawyer, Joan Wilbon.

Yesterday, Tennyson Reid, Milton A. Shaw, James M. Peters and Orson McDonald Brown filed a $20-million damage suit in U.S. District Court against the magazine and the photographer, saying the picture and caption subjected them to public disgrace and embarrassment.

The magazine's executive editor, Benjamin Phlegar, said yesterday that as a general policy, U.S. News "makes every effort to check everything that's in the magazine." Phlegar, who had not yet seen the lawsuit brought by the four men, said he could not say at this time what checks were made on that particular photograph.

Phlegar said the photo credit line that accompanied the picture in the magazine indicates that it was purchased by the magazine from a commercial agency that supplies photographs to various magazines. The photographer whose name accompanies the picture, Marcelo Montecino, does not work for U.S. News, Phlegar said. Montecino also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The men learned about the photograph from fellow employes at work this week, attorney Wilbon said.

The hotel's resident manager, Joseph Rontisi, said he heard about the photograph from employes there who saw it in the magazine and recognized the men.

"I would be upset and I'm sure they were upset," Rontisi said. He declined to provide information about how long the four men had worked at the hotel or about their job assignments.

Michael S. Horne, an attorney at the law firm of Covington & Burling, which represents U.S. News, said yesterday that in addition to checking photographs, the magazine also has a policy "of getting appropriate consent from subjects of pictures where consent is required."

Horne noted that such consent is not required from persons photographed in public places. Horne, who also had not seen the lawsuit, said U.S. News also has a policy of "vigorously defending itself against suits such as this."