The Miami Dolphins, an NFL football team, have suspended player Richie Incognito pending further investigation of claims of severe, threatening bullying behaviors toward teammate Jonathan Martin. As reported by ESPN, Incognito used cyberbullying, racial harassment, and other tactics toward Martin:
Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN that the following is a transcript of a voice message Incognito left for Martin in April 2013, a year after Martin was drafted:
“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
Martin reportedly left the team after being subjected to severe hazing by a group of players, with Incognito being the ringleader of the mob.
The decision to suspend Incognito represents a reversal for the team, which, as reported by Anwar Richardson for Yahoo! Sports, first denied there was a problem:
The Dolphins released a statement on Sunday denying previous reports that bullying contributed to Martin leaving his team this past Monday. In addition, the organization shot down reports that the NFL Players Association was investigating their team.
As the situation became public, the Dolphins apparently realized that they had to respond more pro-actively.
Bullying = Individual aggressors + organizational culture
As this story reminds us, workplace bullying rarely occurs in isolation.
Incognito is well known for his dirty play and behaviors. For example, an Associated Press piece by Steven Wine quotes an Arizona Cardinals player on Incognito:
Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said he was glad the Dolphins took action against Incognito.
”Especially when you try to bully a guy. That’s so classless,” Dockett said. ”His whole makeup is to play dirty and hurt guys. Everybody knows that. I just don’t understand how he got away with it for so long. I think the NFL really needs to buckle down on it now, because it’s bigger than trying to hurt other guys. You’re trying to hurt guys on your team mentally, which sometimes can actually be worse than hurting someone physically.”
In addition, as suggested in a New York Times piece by John Branch and Ken Belson, quite likely Incognito has been enabled by a league culture that enables a considerable amount of hazing of new players, such as Martin, a rookie:
Their unfolding saga is forcing the National Football League to uncomfortably turn its gaze toward locker room culture and start defining the gray areas between good-natured pranks and hurtful bullying.
For years, young players in the N.F.L. have been subjected to a wide swath of indignities straight from the hallways of high school or the back rooms of fraternity houses.
Investigate and act accordingly
Many are focusing on the bullying itself, which is understandable. However, equally significant is the response of the Miami Dolphins.
One of the most important and disturbing findings of the 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute/Zogby national survey on workplace bullying was that when employees reported bullying behaviors, the employers either ignored the complaints or made the situation worse in 62 percent of those instances.
It originally appeared that the Dolphins were ready to join that 62 percent, thus becoming the latest, but certainly not the last, employer to marginalize disabling, malicious abuse in the workplace.
However, eventually they did the right thing by investigating the allegations, making a call on them, and then taking appropriate action to remove the primary aggressor from the work environment.
In addition, head coach Joe Philbin accepted responsibility for what he characterizes as the “workplace atmosphere,” as quoted in the Times piece:
“I want you to know as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, I’m in charge of the workplace atmosphere,” Philbin said Monday, declining to provide specifics about what led him to suspend Incognito. “If the review shows that this is not a safe atmosphere, I will take whatever measures necessary to make sure that it is.”
And the rest of us?
Although workplace bullying is one of the most common forms of interpersonal abuse at work, most people targeted for this mistreatment are unlikely to find the media interested in their stories. In this case, without the growing media attention, it’s possible that the whole thing would’ve been swept under the rug.
Among other things, it’s why we need legal protections against severe bullying at work, such as the Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored. Most bullying targets must deal with the abuse on a wildly uneven playing field, and having a legal wedge will help to level things out.
In addition, we need to use stories like this one to educate employers about the human and organizational costs of workplace bullying. After all, what happened to Jonathan Martin is happening to many thousands of workers every day.