The Supreme Court Is About To Define The Word ‘Supervisor’

Quick: Who’s your supervisor? Is it the person who hired you, or the person who gives you daily and long-term guidance about your projects? It might sound like an unimportant question to anyone outside your HR department, but believe it or not, the Supreme Court is about to get involved.

The current case, “Vance v. Ball State University et al.,” started when a catering worker named Maetta Vance sued her employer, the Indiana university Ball State. Vance said she had been racially harassed at work by her supervisor and colleagues. Vance is black, and she said she endured racial epithets and the threat of violence from Saundra Davis, a white woman who Vance viewed as a supervisor. When she complained, she was made a “glorified salad girl” — an effective demotion, although she had recently received a promotion.

It seems like a fairly cut and dried case of harassment. But Ball State argues that Davis was not, in fact, Vance’s supervisor. And that matters. According to the Civil Rights Act, a company can only be held liable for discrimination or harassment if a supervisor victimizes an employee.

Davis apparently had some control over how Vance spent her day. But the university is arguing that “supervisor” should be define more narrowly: a person with the authority to hire and fire, promote and transfer, and perform other clearly authoritative functions.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, when many Americans worked in factories and other clearly hierarchical work environments, it was easy to tell who was a supervisor and who a lowly worker. A labor and employment lawyer tells the paper that it’s not so obvious anymore. “In modern collaborative workplaces, you often have lots of people with some amount of authority over what happens during the workday.”

If the court defines “supervisor” broadly in this case — if Saundra Davis is indeed a supervisor, that is — then it’s possible job descriptions may be written more carefully in the future to avoid liability, by cutting mentions of managing people or projects. As it turns out, “who’s the boss?” is a big question.

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