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Employee misclassification now affects California hostility cases

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling affects cases in California and throughout the country as it helps to define what was previously a gray area regarding who is and who isn't a supervisor. This is notable as the issue of whether it's a supervisory or a non-supervisory co-worker that creates a hostile workplace will affect how a discrimination case plays out. In what is not always a completely unknowing case of employee misclassification, some employers have given supervisory responsibilities to workers without officially classifying them as such.

The recent Supreme Court ruling defines a supervisor as an employee who can make a tangible employment action. The balance of the court's statement covers a good deal of ground as the ruling includes a list of responsibilities that go beyond the usual basic supervisory criteria of hiring and firing. One such newly-defined responsibility, for instance, covers the reassigning of co-workers to tasks that carry significantly different duties.

The court's definition affects employment cases because it helps to determine if the actual source of the discrimination alleged in an employment suit can be considered as coming from a supervisor. If the source of harassment on a job comes from one of the newly-defined supervisory co-workers, the employer will face a strict liability for any discrimination suffered by their employees. This is quite different from facing a lesser charge of negligence for not having taken adequate enough steps to ensure that workers would not have to work in a hostile environment.

In the case of an employee misclassification in which the employee's responsibilities now fall into the supervisory category, the employer will no longer be able to claim that it was "only" negligent. In a ruling that affects employees in California as in all other states, one employee acting in the capacity of a supervisor -- whether officially or not -- can now become the cause for an entire company to face a strict liability class action suit. Employees should not be made to suffer from the abusive attitudes of either a real or a "de facto" supervisor who demonstrates insensitivity in the workplace and the new ruling ups the stakes for employers that do not take the proper steps to curb such abuse.

Source: hrnblog.com, "U.S. Supreme Court Defines "Supervisor"," Charisse Rockett, June 26. 2013

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