Did you think that subordinates can never “harass” a supervisor? Well, you’d better think again.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently made a decision in an unusual discrimination case. It is unusual in that it involves allegations of harassment by subordinates towards an immediate supervisor, with the hostility possibly tolerated by higher-level supervisors.
Bernadine Stewart, a former employee of Rise, Inc. sued Rise, alleging a hostile work environment based on a combination of race, sex, and national-origin discrimination. She also alleged retaliatory and discriminatory termination under federal and state law. Stewart, an American-born African-American woman, alleged that a group of her subordinates, consisting largely of male, Somali-born immigrants, created the hostile work environment. In addition, she alleged that her own supervisors ignored her complaints for assistance, denied her the authority to terminate the offending employees, allowed the hostile environment to persist, and eventually terminated her employment. Acknowledging that the workplace at issue involved some pretty outrageous behavior, the court focused on what Stewart reported up the chain of command and whether the reported conduct rose to the level of actionable hostility.
The Court of Appeals rejected a lower court decision dismissing her case. Bringing a hostile work environment claim, Stewart had to prove: (1) she belonged to a protected group; (2) she was subjected to unwelcome harassment based on membership in that group; (3) the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of her employment; (4) her employer knew or should have known of the harassment; and (5) the employer failed to take proper action. The environment had to be subjectively and objectively offensive. All circumstances are looked at including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.
Taking everything into consideration, the Court of Appeals believed Stewart showed enough to avoid summary judgment. In concluding, the Court of Appeals said that this was not an easy case to prove to a jury, stating “[w]hen the plaintiff is a supervisor, and the objected-to conduct originates among her subordinates, a jury may look with great suspicion upon claims that the plaintiff adequately presented her concerns up the chain of command.” However, the Court of Appeals believed there was enough of a factual dispute to require a jury trial.
Bottom line–when you have a complaint from a supervisor that a subordinate is harassing her, do not dismiss it out-of-hand. Follow your harassment policy and investigate the claim.