Nine preliminary lessons from the Miami Dolphins workplace bullying story

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.

3 responses

  1. David, again, we who have experienced it, those who have witnessed it, thank you for glowing in the dark! My story was one that was chosen to be presented to legislators in Ma. I hid in a darkness and still remain unsure of what will truly happen to me for speaking up and out. My son who is an RN lost his job. Consequently after I reported discriminatory remarks.. a threat followed, and a mobbing/targeting took place. It’s been 2 yrs of pure unadulterated hell..Not only does this behavior reach the inner core, it dilutes the truth, instills fear, provokes anxiety, comes in like a thief at night robbing one of sleep, causing one to no longer sleep soundly, but AWAKE>>> in turn rendering a very capable person helpless. Once the abuser knows the subject is close to an edge, they push even harder. They become like silent hyena’s, with one thing in mind.

    They incorporate help, they stage or sabotage, they pull the subject away from their assignment, for yet more interogation, instilling more fear, then ironically they send them right back to work on patients! This goes on in hospital’s where this emotional septic, foul abusive behavior is allowed. The consented culture becomes the normal way of disclipline, treatment,,,,”way of life” After a 6 month FMLA ( first time in 25 years) I returned back to work, only to be subjected to yet more abuse. If I hadn’t found Neal Dias upon my google search of “dysfunction in the workplace” I would not have found the help I needed to survive this trauma. David, as I sit here sipping my coffee I smile, because that’s who I really am.. For those of you who read this, don’t let the bully the perpetrator, the, abuser win. The hyena kills, strikes for food to survive. It knows nothing else, it has no conscience, unable to reason.. It’s an animal. I refuse to be treated as such. I can reason.. I will survive.. I have a conscience, and now I have strength to move forward..

    Upon reporting a Protected Concerted Activity, a threat was made to “CUT MY SON’S BALLS OFF”
    and what took place was unimaginable in a place we seek care>>>>> a hospital……A targeting/ mobbing/ lateral violence, an EATING OF THE YOUNG/OLD took place, Jason my son lost his job, that he loved, and did well, until that day he became a target at work..This is part , (beginning)of ‘JASON’S STORY”

  2. I really appreciate this post. First of all, the Miami Dolphins story is the most high-profile case of workplace bullying I am aware of. And while I am so sorry Martin has gone through his experience, I am glad more media attention is focused on this terrible, debilitating phenomenon.

    18 months ago I was the target of a bullying campaign when I worked for the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. I actually couldn’t believe what was happening to me because I was such a stellar employee. Now I’ve learned that it’s often the best who are targeted.

    It amazes me when I read or see that many workers experience a bullying situation for months or years on end. I don’t know how they can go through that. My experience lasted barely two months.

    Still, it’s inexcusable, not just because it’s unethical, mean, cruel and inhumane, but because it served to force me out of a job. In retrospect I am better off now. But at the time I needed that job, but I couldn’t take the cruelty anymore. It affected every aspect of my life; sleep, happiness, everything.

    As a result of the Dolphins’ harassment story, I am considering writing a letter to the editor of the daily newspaper to raise awareness of how that city agency operates. I’m also looking into filing an ethics complaint with the private management company contracted by the city, and my city council. Palm Springs is one of the cities that has signed onto the Healthy Workplace Bill.

    So…thank you, David for your humanity, intelligence and insight on this issue. It is very much needed and the awareness you continue to raise inspires me to go public with what happened to me.

    As with being gay…the more people one comes out to, the more Society learns to accept LGBT people. Come out, come out wherever you are! Only in this way will power be taken away from those who are bullying others at organizations across our country.

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