Supervisor Responsibilities

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Thanks to a recent US Supreme Court case (Vance v. Ball State University), there are some changes in how businesses define a supervisor – or there should be. A supervisor is no longer just anyone who gives another employee directions or assigns tasks. Now a supervisor has to have some real authority over the employee.

We hold that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim. (Vance)

This generally means that the supervisor can hire, fire, promote, demote, make substantial changes in shift or location, or discipline them in meaningful ways.

These changes are relevant because someone ever claims that they were harassed working in your business, it makes a big difference whether it was a supervisor or a co-worker.

Under Title VII, an employer’s liability for such harassment may depend on the status of the harasser. If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions. In cases in which the harasser is a “supervisor,” however, different rules apply. (Vance)

Supervisors are generally considered to be agents of the business and so the business is liable for their actions.

To take advantage of this tighter definition, check your job descriptions. Anyone who has direct reports should have their level of authority spelled out in the description. Can they discipline? Up to what level? Do they have authority to hire and fire? Be particularly careful to spell this out for positions that look like supervisors but don’t have this level of authority.

Also be sure that only people who have this authority are making the tangible employment decisions such as formally disciplining, demoting, and firing people.