“Are you my supervisor?” It seems like a pretty straightforward question.  In most organizations there is someone is who responsible for directing another person’s work.  Where this gets tricky is when the organization is being sued for harassment or some other nasty thing.

Check out this case before the Supreme Court.  Vance (the plaintiff) is accusing her employer (Ball State University) of discrimination because her supervisor was harassing her.  Ah, but was this person doing the harassing her supervisor, which would mean Ball State was responsible?  Or, was this person her co-worker, where the remedies required by the employer would be significantly lower?  If that person wasn’t the supervisor, who was?  The 7th Circuit Court said that the definition of a supervisor is a person with the authority of hire, fire, promote, transfer, or discipline a worker.  Do your first line supervisors have all of that authority?  I thought not.  The EEOC defines a supervisor as someone with the capacity to control a co-worker’s daily activities.  The word “capacity” seems vague.  Why not “authority”?  The school presented evidence that others were responsible for planning Vance’s daily activities, but Vance argues that others had control of her other activities at work.

Practically speaking, for most jobs it seems that management would want to be pretty clear about who a person’s supervisor is so that it could communicate and plan effectively.  Depending on the job, the employees find this useful as well.  And an employee having multiple supervisors doesn’t make anybody happy.

Only the most litigation-averse person would suggest not having any employees classified as supervisors (and I don’t think that that would fly with the Department of Labor’s wage and salary auditors).  For those you do assign to be supervisors, be sure to specify who their direct reports are, which activities they will direct and what their management responsibilities are in their job descriptions.  See here for a list of these kinds of activities.

Back to the court case, Vance is arguing that multiple people could influence her daily activities.  Ball State doesn’t disagree, but says that those influencers are not her supervisors.  We’ll let the court decide that (though in reading the transcript, things are not looking good for Vance).  But, the question for HR people is how to make these lines of authority as clear as possible (for communication and accountability reasons) and still have an organization that isn’t stifled by chains of command.

For more information on leadership and job performance, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or warren@allaboutperformance.biz.