Good News for Employers: Narrow Definition of Supervisor

The courts have distinguished what makes an employee a supervisorThe US Supreme Court has given us a new standard for definition of “supervisors” for employees involved in Title VII claims.  You know Title VII—it’s the Big Five of employment discrimination law. In a nutshell, it makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion. Title VII includes claims of hostile work environment.

Liability for Employees

An employer’s liability for a hostile work environment is contingent upon whether the harasser is the employee’s supervisor or co-worker. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer is liable for the actions of a harassment victim’s co-worker only when the plaintiff can prove the employer‘s negligence in responding to the victim’s complaints.

See also: Does Your Employee Safety Handbook Cover All the Bases?

Different rules apply, however, when the co-worker is the victim’s “supervisor.”  When a supervisor is involved, employers can be held liable for more than the employer’s own negligence—they can be held vicariously liable for the discriminatory or harassing behavior of their personnel. When you are considering “vicarious liability,” whether the harasser is a “supervisor” or just a co-worker can mean the difference between liability and no liability. The distinction turns on the definition of “supervisor’ as clarified by the high court.

The Definition of “Supervisor” for Employees and Personnel

I am going to excerpt from the Supreme Court’s ruling:

“Employers may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employers have empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a ‘significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.’”

In light of this important Supreme Court ruling, employers and their HR office should review their workplace processes, job descriptions, and new employee forms to ensure that only those with authority to take tangible employment action are supervisors.  And, as always, employers should make sure that anti-discrimination policies are in place and routinely conveyed to their personnel through adequate training and education.

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