National Clothesline
National Clothesline
Do you know your supervisors?
In most of my seminars on labor and employment law, I talk about the need to train supervisors. More often than not, the best employees do not make the best supervisors.
Employees and supervisors need different skills, and hardworking, dedicated employees are not necessarily equipped to become leaders. As a result, the company ends up losing a good employee in return for getting a bad supervisor.
A bad or poorly trained supervisor is considered, for legal purposes, the equivalent of the owner, president, major shareholder, or the big boss. There is much litigation over whether certain employees are supervisors, and different agencies have different standards.
Imagine finding out that you have been sued for comments made by an employee whose sole management function is to hand out tasks to the other employees.
This column will therefore have two parts: who is a supervisor and what makes a good supervisor. Identifying supervisors (or at least supervisors in the eyes of the government) is essential before you decide what skills that person needs to have.
Supervisor defined
The National Labor Relations Act defines a supervisor as follows:
The term "supervisor" means any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.
If an employee exercises a single one of these functions, he or she is considered a supervisor. OSHA takes this even farther, maintaining that senior lead employees exercise sufficient authority to charge the employer with knowledge of OSHA violations. Other agencies take similar positions, such as the EEOC and the Department of Labor.
With respect to the Department of Labor, it has many regulations dealing with who is a supervisor (or manager) exempt from overtime. In many cases, people that the EEOC would find to be a supervisor do not exercise enough authority to convince the DOL that the supervisor is exempt from overtime.
All these agencies, in addition to looking at what the alleged supervisor does, also take into account other factors such as title, compensation (higher suggests more authority), and clothing (red hat versus white hat, for example).
Giving a person a title or otherwise making that employee feel better about his or her role at the company has its risks.
Giving a title, for example, may make the company responsible for everything that “Night Manager” says and does. If you have any questions about whether a person is a supervisor, get legal advice. I suspect, however, that if you have a question, that person is probably a supervisor.
A good supervisor
What makes a good supervisor? Knowledge and training relating to labor and employment laws is essential. A supervisor who does not know the law is liable to violate it. In addition, a supervisor needs to be a leader. If being a leader were easy, we would have fewer workplace problems.
A good leader has a little bit of Tom Sawyer in him. For those of you unfamiliar with Mark Twain’s novel, Tom got his friends to do one of his chores (whitewashing a fence) by convincing them that he was having fun and they were missing out.
Years ago, when I worked in a bakery factory making cake batter and icing, the cake manager frequently improved productivity by getting employees to think it was fun to put out more product than management expected them to do.
A good leader has just the right combination of empathy and guts. No one wants to work for an unfeeling dictator, but few people respond to a supervisor who is weak and ineffective. Employees need to have a healthy fear of losing their jobs if they screw up or fail to meet reasonable production standards, or a significant number of employees will, in fact, do a poor job. Supervisors are not there to manage great employees; they are there to manage marginal employees, and get rid of the bad ones.
There must be consequences for poor performance or serious mistakes. If counseling (or butt chewing) is the only consequence, employees will learn to live with the butt chewing. In fact, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers cannot prove employee misconduct unless they can show that they “effectively” enforce rules through discipline. Even OSHA recognizes that employees need both positive encouragement and negative consequences to care about their own safety.
A good leader communicates, period. He talks to employees, and he knows what is going on, preferably not before the problem has descended into chaos. A good leader is direct in her communication, without being heartless.
Of course, supervisors need good leadership too. If you are a senior manager or the boss, you need to apply these skills as well in motivating and managing your managers. Supervisors, ironically, are employees too, at least under many of the employment laws. You have to know how to treat your supervisor/employees in the right way.
Finally, managers need to have a management philosophy. They need to care about the business in ways employees cannot be expected to care. Supervisors need to be proud to be managers, not apologists. How you lead can inspire them. So lead.

Frank Kollman is a partner in the law firm of Kollman & Saucier