The U.S. Supreme Court has clarified what constitutes a “supervisor” and in doing so, provides employers clarity in defending itself against claims of harassment.
The Court in a newly announced decision (Vance V. Ball State University) defined a supervisor as someone who can undertake or effectively recommend tangible employment decisions affecting an employee. Stating it another way, a supervisor is someone who can make a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or decisions causing a significant change in benefits.”
The Court sought to give employers clarity of what constitutes a supervisor when addressing employer’s liability for claims of harassment under Title VII.
So what does this mean for employers? In an harassment claim, only supervisors, those defined as having authority to make tangible employment decisions, can create liability for harassment under Title VII. For those of you who have attended my Sexual Harassment Prevention Training programs know, if a supervisor subjects a subordinate employee to a hostile work environment that results in a tangible employment action (ex. firing, demotion), the employer will be liable for the supervisor’s conduct. However, if a non-supervisor harasses, the employer is only liable if it fails to discover and correct the harassment. This is why the definition of what constitutes a supervisor is so important.
So what should employers be doing?
- Review your job descriptions and titles to ensure they are consistent with the Court’s decision. Anyone carrying the title “supervisor” should meet this definition. Remember, in a claim, the Court will still focus on whether the employee has the authority to make the tangible employment decision and not on the title.
- Train all supervisors on harassment prevention and their liability under the law. I recommend you do this annually.
- Put in place strict polices against harassment and discrimination.
- Take proactive steps to ensure that all forms of harassment and discrimination do not exist in your workplace. Audit all your systems, policies, procedures and guidelines.
- Educate your workforce about harassment and discrimination. Create a respectful workplace.
The Court in the Vance case helped employers. The issue becomes moot if employers do not have in place a proactive anti-harassment/anti-discrimination program.
If you want to know more about how I can help you develop and implement a proactive anti-harassment/anti-discrimination program, click here: Dacri & Associates.
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