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Definition of "supervisor" determines liability in harassment suits

The technical definition of who is a "supervisor" of an employee who says they were harassed at work is often the deciding factor in determining whether an employer is liable for the misconduct. The basic theory goes like this: supervisors are acting as agents (on behalf) of the company while they are at work, and as such, their actions directly reflect on the company as an entity.

On the other hand, regular employees without supervisory duties are generally just following instructions and their actions do not reflect upon the business entity in the same way. However, the law still creates liability for their actions if the business knew about the harassment and failed to act responsibly to stop it.

Many workplace harassment cases hang on the question of where to draw the line between a supervisor and an employee when it comes to harassment cases. Is a supervisor someone with manager in their title? Or is it the most senior member of a team who organizes tasks during a given shift?

The answer is complex, and the United States Supreme Court recently stepped into the fray to finally disentangle the different schools of thought and declare the law of the land.

Some courts have considered supervisors to be anyone with authority to direct an employee's daily workload. At the same time, an appeals court recently found that a supervisor is only someone with the power to hire, fire, discipline, promote, or transfer an employee, which is a much more limited view.

Source: New York Times, "Justices Consider Definition of Supervisor in Job Discrimination Case," Adam Liptak, Nov. 26, 2012.

More information about workplace harassment cases is available on our website.

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