The U.S. Supreme Court is investigating more deeply the issue of workplace harassment, in particular by seeking to define who qualifies as a supervisor. Often, harassment and retaliation occur in a 'top-down' scenario, where a supervisor is abusing their role in the workplace. The court's response to this concern could bring major changes for employers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines a supervisor as "an individual who has authority to direct daily work activities or recommend employment actions." This puts that person in a position of authority, which can make workplace harassment possible and make it more challenging to report and have corrected.
Bearing that in mind, when a supervisor harasses an employee, the employer is responsible for the damages in most cases. However, if the harasser is a peer of the harassed, the victim would have to show that the employer was negligent in their handling of the situation in order for the employer to be liable.
Proving harassment in the workplace can be challenging enough without having to worry about whether or not the employer is liable. In many cases, the emotional damage of the harassment can be serious, and even coming forward about the harassment is difficult. In cases where a superior is the harasser, the fear of retaliation is a serious concern, which could lead to more harassment and threats.
For employees who are concerned about their treatment at work, by a superior or a peer, speaking with an experienced employment law attorney can be an excellent resource to present legal options and protect the victim from additional harassment.
Source: NPR, "Supreme Court To Look At Who Is A 'Supervisor' In Harassment Cases," Nina Totenberg, Nov. 26, 2012