New and narrower definition of "supervisor"

The U.S. Supreme Court recently narrowed the definition of “supervisor,” making it harder to hold employers accountable for workplace harassment

A key issue in any harassment case is whether the harasser is a co-worker or a supervisor. Generally speaking, if the harasser is a co-worker, an employer can be liable only if he knows of the harassment and fails to stop it. But if the harasser is a supervisor and the victim suffers some kind of loss (like a demotion or denial of promotion), an employer can be held responsible even if he doesn’t know about the harassment.

Until this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defined “supervisor” as anyone with the ability to exercise “significant direction” over another person’s daily work. Many courts agreed with the EEOC, holding employers accountable for harassment by employees who are in positions of authority, even if they could not hire, discipline, or make other major employment decisions.

In Vance v. Ball State University, 133 S.Ct. 2432 (2013), a case involving a racially hostile work environment, the Supreme Court rejected a broad definition of “supervisor” under Title VII. The Court ruled that a supervisor is only someone empowered to take “tangible employment actions.” This appears to narrow the definition to only include those who are a supervisor “on paper” and are formally responsible for hiring, firing, and disciplining employees.

Vance has the potential to impact workplace harassment cases around the nation. Vance will make it more difficult to hold employers liable for harassment by individuals who are empowered to serve as “team leads,” “shift leaders,” or any other elevated position that has supervisory characteristics. It may also mean that an employer can argue he is not responsible if a supervisor harasses someone who is not under his or her direct control, such as an employee outside of the supervisor’s department.

The question remains, what do you do if someone other than a supervisor commits harassment now medication for herpes that this new definition of “supervisor” is the law of the land? An employee should follow whatever internal policy his or her company has for reporting harassment (assuming there is one). If the employer does not take appropriate corrective action, he may be liable for allowing a hostile work environment. If you are unsure about what to do, contact an employment lawyer to discuss your options.