And You Call Yourself a Supervisor

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So The Supreme Court delivered another ill-conceived ruling yesterday.

In a 5-4 decision, they determined that a black employee of Ball State University who was relegated to menial tasks, subject to racist comments and even slapped by her supervisor could not file suit against the University for discrimination. While this supervisor managed the day-to-day work of the employee, the supervisor could not take “tangible actions” against the employee and so was not legally a supervisor, only a coworker. In other words, organizations are only liable for the actions of those who have the authority to hire or fire employees.

Oh yeah, and corporations are people, my friend.

This is what happens when you have people making an employment law decision who have their jobs for life.

While the supervisor in question could not take “tangible actions” against the employee, she could make the employee’s life a living hell. The supervisor could give her the worst jobs and the worst schedules. She could make her look bad in front of other employees. The supervisor undoubtedly had influence and input over pay, promotion and termination decisions.

The law makes employers liable for its supervisors so that they take responsibility to ensure that those they put in charge comply with the law. Without this liability in place, employers have no legal reason to hire or train supervisors who are discriminating, and no incentive to discipline them when they do. Of course, many will anyway, because they are decent people working for decent organizations who understand that a workplace where everyone is treated with respect increases productivity. But there are also those who won’t give a damn unless there is a threat of losing a chunk of change in a lawsuit.

In organizations I’ve worked for, no one has the absolute power to fire or demote someone. Pay changes go through a strict authorization process. Decisions are generally made between the direct supervisor, senior management and human resources. Yes, we rely heavily on a direct supervisor’s input, but if they summarily fired someone, they would be soon to follow. These processes are prudent to ensure good business decisions. It could also protect a company from liability. It could argue that since the person does not have sole decision-making ability, that person is not a supervisor, no matter how high up the rung that person is. A stretch, I know, but still, a question left unanswered.

All, in all, most organizations won’t change based on this ruling. Good employers will continue to be good employers. The jerks will always be jerks.


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