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Supreme Court to clear up harassment, discrimination protocol

Under both New Jersey state law and federal law, it is very clear that employment discrimination and harassment are illegal. In any shape or form--whether committed by an executive, immediate supervisor, co-worker, contractor or customer--discrimination and harassment are wrong and should not be tolerated.

However, although the law is very apparent when it comes to these matters, it is a bit vaguer in terms of how victims may hold employers accountable for harassment or discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently taken up this issue and its decision will hopefully add some clarity.

Currently, when a worker is harassed by any type of supervisor, the employee can generally sue the employer to hold it liable for damages. This is because the supervisor is essentially an agent of the employer. The same is true if the worker is harassed by a co-worker or another party at work, and a complaint is made and the employer does nothing to correct the action. In cases where the harasser was someone who was not a supervisor and no report was made to any supervisor, it may not be possible to hold the employer liable under federal law.

While this might seem simple enough, it is actually quite complicated because there is no official definition of "supervisor" used by the courts. Some courts have said that in order for someone to be a supervisor, he or she must have the authority to hire, promote, demote, transfer and fire workers.

In today's modern workplace where things tend to be more collaborative and less hierarchical, many New Jersey workers have several leaders in the workplace who direct their tasks but who do not necessarily have the power to fire or promote them.

As such, other courts as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have used a definition that is broader and states that anyone who directs daily work activities--including things such as scheduling--is a supervisor.

The Supreme Court's decision could create a rule by which future supervisor questions are answered.

Source: BloombergBusinessweek, "Job-Supervisor Harassment Rules Confound U.S. Court," Greg Stohr, Nov. 26, 2012

  • Our civil litigation and appeals law firm in Montclair, New Jersey, practices employment law, including sexual harassment and discrimination cases among others. To learn more about this, visit our Employment Law page.

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