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If someone directs your daily work, are they a supervisor?

The U.S. Supreme Court will be considering that question on Monday. In this case, the context of the question is race discrimination. The question comes before the high court because previous rulings have made clear that, in cases where a supervisor engages in harassment, the company is liable.

To be clear, it is still possible to sue an employer for workplace discrimination in cases where the racial or other harassment is not carried out by a supervisor. However, cases in which supervisors are the perpetrators of the harassment there is a clear line of authority from the company to the supervisor. The company has authorized the supervisor to act in its name, so the company is ultimately responsible for what he or she does.

The Supreme Court has apparently taken this case in order to clear up a disagreement among the federal circuit courts as to who qualifies as a supervisor in these cases. Some circuits have limited the meaning of "supervisor" to those who have the authority to hire, promote, fire, demote or discipline the employee. Other circuits take the broader view that a supervisor may be anyone with the ability to direct and oversee an employee's daily work.

Under the stricter definition, unfortunately, companies can insulate themselves from this type of direct liability by limiting the authority to hire, fire, promote, demote or take any direct job action to people at corporate headquarters who never meet the employees. The effect of doing business that way is to ensure that those with official supervisory power are not in a position to harass anyone.

In the case the court will hear on Monday, the only African American catering worker at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, had filed several complaints that her coworkers were taunted her with racial epithets, veiled threats and references to the KKK. Among those engaging in the harassment was the person the plaintiff considered her direct supervisor.

This presumed supervisor, a woman, directed the daily work of the plaintiffs and the other catering employees. Presumably, if an employee didn't follow her direction, that employee would be disciplined or fired. She was the boss.

According to the plaintiff's lawyer, the boss "taunted her with racial epithets, slapped her at one point and made her life a living hell."

Ball State denies that the woman in charge of the catering staff was a "supervisor" because she did not have the authority to fire anyone.

Who's your boss? Have you ever asked whether the person who tells you what to do at work has the authority to fire, demote or discipline you? Do you think it should matter?

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "Top court to consider workplace harassment rules," Terry Baynes, Nov. 23, 2012

Our law firm represents people facing employment discrimination of any type, including race discrimination. For more information, please see our website.

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