Are Your Supervisors Really Supervisors?
Posted by Kimberly Jones, HR Consultant, Credit Union Resources, Inc on 8/5/2013

In the last week of June, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two employment related decisions.  One of these dealt with the definition of "supervisor."  Now, many may wonder why the Supreme Court was involved in having to make such a ruling?

That's because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long operated with a definition of a supervisor being (1) an individual who has authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions affecting an employee; or (2) an individual who has authority to direct an employee's daily work activities.

In the case of Vance v. Ball State University, the plaintiff claimed that she was the victim of racial discrimination on the part of another employee, who the plaintiff claimed was her supervisor.  However, the employee, while having the ability to direct work, did not have the ability to meet the standard of having "...the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline the plaintiff."  Under the EEOC definition, the guiding of work was sufficient enough to hold the company liable.  However, the company appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and won their appeal.

The determination of a supervisor by the U.S. Supreme Court as being an individual who has the ability to take a "tangible employment action" such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, etc., is very significant to employers because if supervisors engage in harassment or discrimination as a representative of the company, the penalties the company pays are much greater than if the harassment or discrimination were the acts of a co-worker.

So, what should employers do?  I recommend two things.  First, make sure your job descriptions are updated or revised to show that everyone who is classified as a supervisor has the ability to take a "tangible employment action."  The second recommendation is to make sure all supervisors are trained on their responsibilities, obligations, and liabilities.

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