Just when you thought you knew what a supervisor was…
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Just when you thought you knew what a supervisor was…

Conscientious HR pros are well aware that they need to train their supervisors on everything related to harassment and discrimination. One big reason: Supervisors, unlike line employees, are agents of their employers, and if they commit discrimination — even unintentionally — the law lays the mistake directly at their employer’s door.

But are you aware that the legal definition of a supervisor might be about to change, with sweeping implications for every employer in the land?

That’s because the Supreme Court will soon decide a key case out of Indiana that could significantly broaden the definition. In the case, Vance v. Ball State University, an African-American employee sued her employer over racially derogatory remarks aimed at her by a co-worker.

Power vs. oversight
The employee claimed the co-worker was a supervisor because the co-worker managed some of her work duties. The employer argued that the co-worker was only that, because the person didn’t have the power to hire, fire, promote, demote, transfer or discipline the employee that has traditionally defined a supervisor in American workplaces.

Two levels of federal courts in the 7th Appeal Circuit — which covers Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin — ruled for the employer and against the employee. But this left the definition of supervisor up in the air, because three federal Appeals circuits — two in the Midwest and one in New England — have now ruled in favor of the traditional definition, while three others — in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Far West — have come down in favor of an expanded definition under which a supervisor would be anyone who oversees an employee’s work. (That’s also the definition that the EEOC is pushing, by the way.)

So the Supreme Court stepped in to clarify things for the country as a whole. The high court heard the case last November, and is expected to issue a ruling by June 2013.

Huge implications
The possible implications for employers are huge.

If the Supreme Court agrees that a supervisor is indeed anyone who directs other employees’ daily work activities, employers would have a whole new class of employees to worry about — and train. Suppose, for instance, that a department manager delegates power to one employee to take attendance and distribute work tasks to his or her co-workers before the manager arrives for work each day. Under the broader definition of supervisor, that employee might well be considered a supervisor for purposes of the employer’s legal liability.

So what can an HR pro do to prepare for the Supreme Court’s ruling?

One sensible step might be to review your discrimination and harassment training. Do you want to bring your entire work force in on the the training that you now give only to supervisors? It might be a good idea, if the hitherto clear line between supervisors and the rest of your employees is going to be smudged by the courts.

And even if the Supreme Court holds the traditional line, you might decide you want to raise your workforce’s awareness of discrimination and harassment, through the provision of expanded training for line employees.

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