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What do you know about Maetta Vance?

If you know little to nothing, that might soon change.

Maetta Vance sued Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana in 2006, and her case is now being heard by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The case could reset the boundaries for when a company is liable for harassment by its employees.

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Maetta was the only black catering worker at Ball State.  Her lawsuit claimed that several white coworkers used racial epithets, complete with references to the Ku Klux Klan and veiled physical threats against her.

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

Maetta’s lawyers argued that one of her coworkers, Saundra Davis, was a supervisor because she had the power to direct Maetta’s day-to-day work, hence the company should be held liable.

Some circuit courts say supervisors are those with the power to hire, fire, demote, promote or discipline.  Other circuits have adopted a broader standard, one that also includes employees who direct and oversee a colleague’s daily work.

The district court dismissed Maetta’s case before a trial.  They didn’t think Davis was a true supervisor, and they also thought that Ball State had taken corrective action and had not acted negligently.

But the Supreme Court decided to hear the case anyway, suggesting that they believe that the supervisor definition should be reexamined.  It will be the key point on which this case will turn.

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Let’s consider three trends —

1.  There has been an undeniable emphasis over the past few years on reducing labor costs.  Downsizing is now rightsizing; flatter organizations result from removal of management levels in the middle; and the surviving managers have not only increased spans of control but also increased task responsibility (as differentiated from increased management responsibility; i.e. they become more “working” managers).

2.  There has also been an emphasis on expense reduction and expense control.  Wouldn’t you agree that the one area seemingly always in the cross hairs is the training budget?

3.  There is increasing diversity in the workplace.  Employees must at a minimum tolerate the differences among them.  We might reasonably expect increased workplace harassment occurrences, especially if there isn’t active management.

Peering out a bit from these three trends, what do we see?

We see more quasi supervisors than before; often called “leads,” these people are not really managers but who nonetheless have oversight and work coordination responsibilities.  They are likely not even in the mix for management training, but even if they are, they are new to management and are learning “on the job”…

We see supervisors who are not really trained in how to effectively supervise people and manage the work.  Their management practices will likely be rough around the edges, with conflict management skills underpowered.

We see supervisors that have expanded responsibilities.  Their bandwidth is filled with multiple priorities, and their attention span for handling sensitive issues is diminished.

When supervisory skills are not up to the task and workloads are considerable … and when poor employee behaviors and conflict occur … the compelling supervisory coping tactic is to look the other way.

We’ll see more Maetta’s.

More lawsuits.

Come next spring, when we learn how the Supreme Court sees the Maetta Vance case, we’ll see if the company liability boundary moves.

(Note to corporate executives: As you take quick action to beef up your legal teams and your financial accruals, how about investing in training as well as solid organization design?  They can mitigate the risk…)

Adapted from a Reuters news report.  The case is Vance v. Ball State University, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-556.