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A 1940s poster from the United States

A supervisor, or lead, (also known as foreman, boss, overseer, facilitator, monitor, area coordinator, line-manager or sometimes gaffer) is the job title of a lower-level management position that is primarily based on authority over workers or a workplace.[1] A supervisor can also be one of the most senior on the staff at the place of work, such as a professor who oversees a Ph.D. dissertation. Supervision, on the other hand, can be performed by people without this formal title, for example by parents. The term supervisor itself can be used to refer to any personnel who have this task as part of their job description.

An employee is a supervisor if they have the power and authority to do the following actions (according to the Ontario Ministry of Labour):

  1. Give instructions and/or orders to subordinates.
  2. Be held responsible for the work and actions of other employees.

If an employee cannot do the above, legally, they are probably not a supervisor, but in some other category, such as a work group leader or lead hand.

A supervisor is first and foremost an overseer whose main responsibility is to ensure that a group of subordinates get out the assigned amount of production, when they are supposed to do it and within acceptable levels of quality, costs, and safety.

A supervisor is responsible for the productivity and actions of a small group of employees. The supervisor has several manager-like roles, responsibilities, and powers. Two of the key differences between a supervisor and a manager are (1) the supervisor does not typically have "hire and fire" authority, and (2) the supervisor does not have budget authority. Supervisors are not considered part of the organization's proper management and instead are seen as senior members of the workforce. Unlike middle managers, supervisors presence is essential for the execution of the work.

Lacking "hire and fire" authority means that a supervisor may not recruit the employees working in the supervisor's group nor does the supervisor have the authority to terminate an employee. The supervisor may participate in the hiring process as part of interviewing and assessing candidates, but the actual hiring authority rests in the hands of a Human Resource Manager. The supervisor may recommend to management that a particular employee be terminated and the supervisor may be the one who documents the behaviors leading to the recommendation but the actual firing authority rests in the hands of a manager.

Lacking budget authority means that a supervisor is provided a budget developed by management within which constraints the supervisor is expected to provide a productive environment for the employees of the supervisor's work group. A supervisor will usually have the authority to make purchases within specified limits. A supervisor is also given the power to approve work hours and other payroll issues. Normally, budget affecting requests such as travel will require not only the supervisor's approval but the approval of one or more layers of management.

As a member of management, a supervisor's main job is more concerned with orchestrating and controlling work rather than performing it directly.

Role and responsibilities[edit]

Supervisors are uniquely positioned through direct daily employee contact to respond to employee needs, problems, and satisfaction. Supervisors are the direct link between management and the work force and can be most effective in developing job training, safety attitudes, safe working methods and identifying unsafe acts.


  • Carry out policies passed down a hierarchy from the level above.
  • Plan short-range action-steps to carry out goals set by the level above.
  • Organize the work group.
  • Assign jobs to subordinates.
  • Delegate projects to subordinates.
  • Direct tasks, jobs and projects.
  • Train subordinates.
  • Enforce rules.
  • Lead and motivate subordinates.
  • Develop group cohesiveness.
  • Solve routine daily problems.
  • Control or evaluate the performance of subordinates and the department - performance appraisals.
  • Discipline subordinates.

"Doing" can take up to 70% of the time - (this varies according to the type of supervisory job - the doing involves the actual work of the department as well as the planning, controlling, scheduling, organizing, leading, etc.).[2]


Supervisors often do not require any formal education on how they are to perform their duties but are most often given on-the-job training or attend company sponsored courses. Many employers have supervisor handbooks that need to be followed. Supervisors must be aware of their legal responsibilities to ensure that their employees work safely and that the workplace that they are responsible for meets government standards.


In academia, a supervisor is a senior scientist or scholar who, along with their own responsibilities, aids and guides a postdoctoral researcher, postgraduate research student or undergraduate student in their research project; offering both moral support and scientific insight and guidance. The term is used in several countries for the doctoral advisor of a graduate student.


In colloquial British English, "gaffer" means a foreman, and is used as a synonym for "boss". In the UK, the term also commonly refers to sports coaches (football, rugby, etc.).

The term is also sometimes used colloquially to refer to an old man, an elderly rustic. The word is probably a shortening of "godfather", with "ga" from association with "grandfather". The female equivalent, "gammer", came to refer colloquially to an old lady or to a gossip.[3] The use of gaffer in this way can be seen, for example, in J.R.R. Tolkien's character Gaffer Gamgee.

In 16th century English a "gaffer" was a man who was the head of any organized group of labourers. In 16th and 17th century rural England, it was used as a title slightly inferior to "Master", similar to "Goodman", and was not confined to elderly men. The chorus of a famous Australian shearer's song, The Backblocks' Shearer (also known as Widgegoeera Joe), written by W. Tully at Nimidgee, NSW (c.1900), refers to a gaffer:

Hurrah, me boys, my shears are set,
I feel both fit and well;
Tomorrow you’ll find me at my pen
When the gaffer rings the bell.
With Hayden's patent thumb guards fixed
And both my blades pulled back;
Tomorrow I go with my sardine blow
For a century or the sack!
  • In glassblowing, a gaffer is the central figure in the creation of a piece of art. For example, at the Corning Glass Works in Corning, New York, a gaffer is a skilled artisan who blows through a long tube to shape molten glass into a variety of useful and/or artistic objects. The Gaffer District in Corning is named in honor of these artisans.


As industrial and commercial enterprises grew in size - especially after introduction of techniques of the industrial revolution - the perceived need for supervisors and foremen grew in tandem. One example is the development of the hierarchical model and practices of the plantation economies in the antebellum American South, where the overseer provided the interface between the planter and the indentured servants, and later slaves.[4]

By 1894 speakers of U.S. English had begun to refer to a subordinate or assistant foreman - sometimes contemptuously - as a straw boss,[5] by analogy with the concept of a "straw man".[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-02-23. Retrieved 2015-02-23.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Who is a Supervisor under the Occupational Health and Safety Act? (2015) Ontario Ministry of Labour. Retrieved Feb 23, 2015.
  2. ^ Miller, Patricia (1988). Powerful Leadership Skills for Women. p. 86. ISBN 9781558520189.
  3. ^ The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 5th Edition, OUP 1964
  4. ^ Smircich, Linda Mary; Calás, Marta B., eds. (1995). Critical Perspectives on Organization and Management Theory. History of management thought. Vol. 13. Dartmouth. p. 266. ISBN 9781855217072. Retrieved 6 June 2020. The foreman role was somewhat analogous to that of the "overseer" on slave plantations in the ante-bellum South [...].
  5. ^ "straw boss". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  6. ^ This term alludes to the person's position as a straw man, that is, a front or cover for the real boss and of only nominal importance.

Further reading[edit]

Schultz & Schultz, Duane (2010). Psychology and work today. New York: Prentice Hall. pp. 169–170. ISBN 978-0-205-68358-1.

External links[edit]