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Ken Turchi
IU Maurer School of Law

Last modified: Monday, November 26, 2012

IU expert: Ball State racial harassment case has national implications

Nov. 26, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a case involving accusations of racial harassment at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. According to an Indiana University Maurer School of Law expert on employment discrimination, the court's holding has implications far beyond Indiana.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the court is considering who "counts" as a supervisor for purposes of racial and sexual harassment.

Deborah Widiss

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"This question is extremely important for workers across the country," said Deborah Widiss, associate professor of law. "In previous decisions, the Supreme Court has interpreted antidiscrimination law to prohibit conduct that creates a hostile work environment. But the court has also recognized that supervisors should be held to a higher standard than mere co-workers, both because they can use their position of authority to facilitate harassment and because individual employees are less comfortable complaining about harassing conduct by a supervisor."

Widiss explained that some courts' definition of "supervisor" in antidiscrimination law does not match the reality of today's workplace.

"The lower courts in Vance held that only individuals who had authority to make formal personnel decisions, such as hiring, promotion or termination, should be considered 'supervisors,'" she said. "However, employees often have minimal contact with the people who make those formal decisions, but they interact every day with intermediate supervisors, such as shift workers. And these intermediate supervisors are often the ones who are best positioned to create a hostile work environment."

Widiss hopes the court will take the opportunity in Vance to broaden the definition of "supervisor" to include employees who controls other employees' daily work or who can use their authority to facilitate harassment.

"Adopting this broader definition has at least two benefits," she said. "First, employers will have greater incentives to train intermediate supervisors on appropriate standards of conduct and promptly investigate any complaints. Second, workplace culture should improve for all employees."

Widiss has written extensively on employment law issues and is available to comment on Vance. She can be reached at 812-856-1435, or at