THE U.S. Supreme Court has put new limits on employer liability when facing on-the-job harassment claims. In its ruling, the court found that an employer can only be held liable for the actions of a supervisor or manager who has the power to hire, fire, promote or reassign a worker to a post with different responsibilities.
The Supreme Court justices found that such a "workable" definition of a supervisor would provide employers and employees with guidance prior to a lawsuit being filed.
Also, harassment claims are bad for business. They hurt productivity and morale, can make it harder to retain qualified employees, and can damage your company's reputation through negative media coverage. A harassment claim can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees, and even more in settlements, judgments and punitive damage awards.
In the case at hand, Vance vs. Ball State University, an
African-American worker who worked in the school's catering department complained that she had been threatened by a fellow worker and that another one had directed racial epithets at her.
In the ensuing two years, the worker continued to complain about the other two employees' treatment of her and she finally filed suit against Ball State, the two employees and the general manager of the Banquet and Catering Department.
Among her claims was that Ball State should be held liable for the hostile environment created by the behavior of one of the employees, who she claimed was a supervisor.
The Supreme Court in the Ball State decision added: An employer will be vicariously liable "when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, a decision causing a significant change in benefits."
The best way to reduce the possibility of harassment in the workplace and avoid litigating a harassment case is to train your employees, supervisors and managers.