Racial and sexual harassment in the workplace feels the same whether it’s dished out by a supervisor or a co-worker—degrading, harmful, demoralizing.
With this in mind, Congress should correct the U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 25 decision that redefined the term “supervisor”—a shift that let Ball State University off the hook on a racial discrimination lawsuit and narrowed the ability of workers to pursue their claims in court.
Broadening the definition of a supervisor would restore protections whittled away by the decision.
At issue was whether a white catering specialist who was accused of harassing a black banquet worker was the banquet worker’s supervisor. Employers are automatically liable for actions of supervisors unless employers can show they have followed an effective policy to prevent harassment, and the employee involved failed to take advantage of the policy.
In clarifying definitions evolving in federal circuit courts, the high court ruled that the catering specialist was not the banquet worker’s supervisor.
A supervisor is someone who can take “authorized employment actions” including hiring and firing, the court said, not someone who simply directs another worker—a longtime Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition that sweeps in many midlevel and shift managers.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel Alito rightly ripped the EEOC’s definition of someone with authorization to carry out “tangible employment actions” as a “study in ambiguity.”
But the majority went too far in shrinking the definition.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent, Congress should find a way to protect workers. Ginsburg is correct in observing that it’s tough for a worker to tell a supervisor to “buzz off.” That’s the case whether the supervisor can hire or fire or simply retaliate by changing their duties to a graveyard shift.
Congress also should address the matter because workplace relationships have changed dramatically in recent decades. The fluid, fast-moving nature of today’s workplace requires fewer walls, both literally and figuratively, the result being fewer strict lines between supervisors and workers and more hybrid definitions.
Employees at all levels deserve to work in peace knowing they have protections against harassment regardless of which direction it comes from.
It’s understandable why business and conservative legal groups and other universities rooted for Ball State. Who wouldn’t want to reduce their exposure?
However, these same employers have an interest in redefining a supervisor, too. Accountability imposed by the law makes workplaces safer psychologically, thus more productive and, in the end, more profitable.
After all, people who are treated well usually reward employers with their best work.•