Since 1998, it has been held that an employer is liable for workplace harassment by an employee who is a supervisor. However, the question that remained unclear until now was who exactly qualifies as a “supervisor?”
In a recent decision, the Supreme Court limited an employer’s liability in Title VII situations, holding that an employer is only liable for discrimination by a supervisor if that supervisor has authority to effect tangible changes in employment status, such as hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline the employee who suffers the discrimination.
This case came about after an African-American woman named Maetta Vance sued her employer, Ball State University, alleging that Saundra Davis, another employee, created a racially hostile work environment. After a lengthy discussion about the meaning of “supervisor” and recognition that many modern businesses no longer have a hierarchical management structures, the court decided that an employee is a supervisor only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.
As a result, employers may now be able to avoid liability for hostile work environments by giving direct supervisors all powers except the hiring, firing, disciplining, and the like powers, and reserving those powers with other more-distant bosses. In response to this idea, the court insisted that the new standard will not leave employees unprotected against harassment by co-workers who possess some authority to assign daily tasks, because the victims can prevail by merely showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur. The court further stated that in these cases, the jury should be instructed that the nature and degree of authority of the harasser is an important factor in determining negligence.
Virginia employers should keep in mind that despite this ruling that could potentially limit liability, employers can still be held accountable in a harassment situation under the negligence standard. Clear company policies and training regarding proper conduct in the workplace are essential.