Who Do You Punish?

I ran into an interesting bit of case law regarding racial discrimination in a university kitchen. In Vance v. Ball, Maetta Vance, an African-American woman working for the university dining services at Ball State University, alleged that she experienced racially charged encounters and had altercations with Saundra Davis, a white catering specialist. Vance also complained about racially offensive comments from Connie McVicker, another white co-worker.

Vance reported the incidents to General Manager Bill Kimes, but alleges he took no action to fix the situation or reprimand the two women. According to the case background, Ball State actually did issue a confidential letter of reprimand to McVicker.

As is, the case isn’t terribly interesting. While sad, it’s a common enough occurrence for a lower-level minority worker to experience issues with white superiors. But legally, how does it work if the superior isn’t exactly that individual’s boss? Neither McVicker nor Davis were Vance’s direct supervisor; it appears they were instead higher in the food chain, pardon the expression, than she was, thus perhaps felt they could give her instruction, or had done so in the past.

What definition of supervisor the court adopts could impact how an employer may shape its workforce to minimize liability in these kinds of cases. According to the Proskauer Employment Law Counseling & Training Group, if the court adopts a narrower definition, who is a supervisor will be more limited. If the court takes a broader definition, determining who is a supervisor will require more fact-sensitive inquiry where the court will have to analyze the day-to-day control an alleged harasser has over the victim’s working conditions.

It’s a complicated problem. Who is a supervisor? Is it only the person you report to? Or is it anyone who can and does give you instruction? If it’s the latter, is your direct supervisor responsible for the behavior of those people who lead but do not necessarily have the title to back it up? Or, what level of responsibility are we talking about?

Either way, stop aggravating people who work in kitchens lest they snap; we all know that can have disastrous consequences.