As discussed here last week, the Miami Dolphins have suspended player Richie Incognito pending further investigation of claims of severe, threatening bullying behaviors toward teammate Jonathan Martin. Martin reportedly left the team after being subjected to severe hazing by a group of players, with Incognito being the ringleader of the mob.
This has become a major national story, with workplace bullying invoked frequently to describe the underlying behaviors, and the situation continues to develop. Nevertheless, it already reinforces some important lessons about understanding workplace bullying:
1. Sweeping it under the rug is often the first instinct — The Dolphins first went into denial mode when confronted with reports of Incognito’s behavior.
2. A little sunlight can prod organizations into doing the right thing — Faced with a growing amount of media scrutiny and expressions of concerns from the NFL Players Association, the Dolphins investigated the matter more thoroughly and suspended Incognito. By contrast, most bullying targets will not have media access and union support, which is one reason why targets are often left to their own devices.
3. Bullies tend to repeat their behaviors — Richie Incognito has a long track record of dirty play and has been disciplined on numerous occasions during his football career.
4. Targets of bullying are often labeled as weak and different — Jonathan Martin has played football at the highest levels, first as an outstanding member of Stanford’s highly-regarded Division I football team, then as a high draft pick and starting offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins. However, he is now being labeled as weak or soft by those who deny the impact of severe bullying and hazing. He’s also not your typical NFL player. Martin majored in Classics (the study of ancient history and language), and he hails from a family that has taken education very seriously.
5. Bystander behavior is influenced by organizational culture, and vice versa — Some of the Dolphins players have rallied to the side of Richie Incognito, as have a number of other current and former NFL players. In the macho culture of the NFL, few are brave enough to side with someone tagged as soft.
6. Bullying extends beyond protected class harassment — Racial harassment is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; generic bullying is not. Martin has experienced varieties of both. If Martin decided to pursue a racial harassment claim against the Dolphins, it is possible that some courts would disregard, or at least treat lightly, all behaviors and communications that were not expressly racial in content. This is yet another reason why we need direct legal protections against workplace bullying.
7. Bosses can be complicit in what appears to be peer-to-peer bullying — Now reports have surfaced that earlier this season, Dolphins assistant coaches asked Incognito to help “toughen up” Martin.
8. Unions can play an important role in addressing workplace bullying — Unions are obliged under law to represent the interests of all members, including those who may be accused of wrongdoing. Thus, the NFL Players Association must safeguard the rights and safety of both Martin and Incognito. Nevertheless, it appears that the union’s concerns about how the Dolphins were handling the situation helped to ensure that it would be dealt with fairly.
9. The media is starting to get it with workplace bullying — Most of the media editorial commentary has been supportive of Martin and critical of the culture of hazing in the NFL. This includes sports writers!
I was quoted extensively in this Washington Times piece by Alex Hopkins about the Miami Dolphins situation. It’s a balanced and informative article.