Supreme court to consider workplace harassment rules

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments in a case that could determine when a company is liable for harassment by its employees.

The case turns on the definition of a single word – “supervisor” – under a federal civil rights law that prohibits racial, religious or sexual harassment in the workplace.

Under previous Supreme Court rulings, an employer is automatically responsible if a supervisor harasses a subordinate. The employer is not liable if the harassment is between two equal coworkers, unless it was negligent in allowing the abuse.

Since those rulings, a rift has developed between federal appeals courts over exactly who is a supervisor. On one side, three circuits say supervisors are those with the power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline. Three other circuits have adopted a broader standard, one that also includes employees who direct and oversee a colleague’s daily work.

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