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    Supervisor vs. Manager: What’s the difference?

    Business is expanding and you’re ready to add some layers to your company structure.

    But as you sit down to write the job description, it hits you: do you need to hire a supervisor, or a manager?

    And, seriously, what’s the difference between the two?

    If you’re not sure, don’t be embarrassed. There are a lot of similarities between the two roles. But each has a clear definition, and knowing the difference is vital if you’re planning on hiring someone to oversee a team or department.

    >>> Hiring? 7 Tips to Build an Employer Brand That Attracts Top Talent

    What the dictionary has to say about it

    According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “supervise” means to be in charge of something, whereas “manage” means to handle or direct something with a degree of skill. Essentially, a supervisor oversees a team of employees or a specific operation, where as a manager has a more active role in directing operations and creating objectives for employees.

    Think of it this way: a supervisor makes sure things get done in a certain way, while a manager decides the way things will get done. There will be some overlap between the two, particularly in smaller companies. But let’s take a look at the nitty-gritty of what makes these roles different.


    Typically, a supervisor is below a manager in the organizational hierarchy. In fact, the title of “supervisor” is often one of the first managerial positions a qualified and competent employee might put on his or her resume.

    Many supervisors are promoted from within the department they’ll be overseeing, rather than hired from outside. He or she is typically a high-performer who has been with the company long enough to be intimately familiar with both the company policies and the quality of work expected from the rest of the team.

    Supervisors generally oversee a group of people in similar jobs, who are doing similar work. Their role is more about assigning work and keeping employees on track, rather than orchestrating them.


    A manager has more agency than the supervisor. Generally, a manager is charged with managing resources — whether financial, material, or personnel. Managers have decision-making capabilities regarding those resources: where to invest, where to fire, when to hire.

    Because of this, managers need to have more insight into the broader operations of the business than a supervisor would, so they can make sure their department is aligned with the strategy of the company as a whole. A manager needs to have the ability (and agency) to allocate resources to meet company goals.

    Depending on the size of the company, a manager may oversee employees directly, or oversee a team of supervisors.

    Not all management positions require additional education and training, but it’s becoming more common. Jobs research company Burning Glass has found that more employers then ever are requiring degrees for middle management positions.

    >>> Are you a manager? 5 tips: how to manage teams like a boss

    Supervisor vs. Manager: Who to hire?

    Now that we talked a bit about the difference between these two roles, let’s get back to our original scenario. You need to hire somebody to oversee part of your operation — do you need a manager, or a supervisor?

    right-arrow Ask yourself these questions_
    • Will this person have hiring and firing powers?
    • Will this person set objectives for their direct reports?
    • Will this person make critical decisions about how resources (monetary or personnel) are spent?
    • Does this role require “big-picture thinking” aligned with company goals?
    • Will this person be asked to make decisions regarding the direction of the department?

    If you answered yes to these questions, you’re looking for a manager.

    If you’re looking more for a person who is competent in the specific role they’ll be overseeing, and whose job will be to ensure quality and compliance from their direct reports, you’re looking for a supervisor.

    Put simply, a manager should have higher order people management skills and business strategy skills, while a supervisor should have more in-depth knowledge of the day-to-day work done by the employees they are overseeing.

    Writing a job description: Supervisor vs. Manager

    Now that you know who you want to hire, it’s time to craft a great job description. Whether you’re promoting someone from within the team that they’ll be overseeing or hiring from outside the company, a solid job description will help your new manager or supervisor understand — and hopefully excel at — their duties.

    Key words and phrases to include:

    • Supervising staff
    • Organizing and developing employee schedules
    • Training new employees
    • Monitoring work progress
    • Monitoring expenses and supplies
    • Overseeing operational logistics
    • Managing staff
    • Planning department activities
    • Evaluating work effectiveness
    • Managing expenses and resources
    • Developing budgets and performing cost-benefit analysis
    • Recruiting, hiring, and evaluating employees
    • Performance reviews
    • Directing operational logistics
    • Developing strategies for meeting departmental objectives

    The supervisor job description would be more likely to require experience doing the exact work of the employees he or she will be overseeing; the manager job description would be more likely to require broader people management experience. Depending on the specific situation, hiring a manager with outside industry experience can be a boon.

    Now, spread your wings, go fly away and find that perfect manager or supervisor!

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    Topics: HR
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