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What does harassment ruling mean for Twin Cities business owners?

Business owners here in the Twin Cities may have heard that earlier this month the Supreme Court issued a ruling that may limit employer liability in harassment cases. Employers should be aware that, in spite of this ruling, their obligations to prevent and put a stop to sexual harassment, and other types of harassment, remain about the same.

As many employers may be aware, they can generally be held liable for workplace harassment in two different types of situations.

  1. A worker has reported harassment, but the employer does nothing to effectively to stop the harassment. Or, worse yet, the employer retaliates against the worker who filed the complaint. In this type of situation, an employer may have opened itself to liability.
  2. A worker is being harassed by his or her supervisor. Employers may be held accountable for the actions of those in managerial roles. This makes it very important for people in such roles to be well-trained on labor rights.

What the Supreme Court has done is further clarify this second type of harassment claim. It has defined what a "supervisor" is. This is very important, because in many workplaces the lines between workers and supervisors have become quite blurred.

The court has ruled that in order to be called a supervisor for the purposes of a harassment claim, the person must have had the general authority to hire, fire, promote, demote or reassign the alleged victim.

This will limit employer liability in some cases, because often a person who may direct the daily work of others does not actually have any power to do the things mentioned above.

It should be noted that it has been suggested the Congress may review this ruling, so this definition of supervisor could be altered.

While some have said that this ruling favors employers, employers should continue taking any harassment complaints very seriously. A small misstep in handling a harassment complaint can lead to significant complications. Employers may benefit from seeking legal counsel as soon as possible after an employee files a harassment or discrimination complaint. Employees, too, who feel their employment rights have been violated, should seek legal guidance in order to take the appropriate steps to right the wrongs.

Source: The Atlantic, "The Supreme Court Ruling on Workplace Harassment That Got Buried," July 16, 2013

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