By now most people have heard about the Richie Incognito case, where an NFL player is accused of bullying a teammate. Incognito is alleged to have left harassing voice mails for a rookie player that were racially charged and sexually explicit. He is also alleged to have forced the African-American rookie, Jonathan Martin, to pay thousands of dollars to more seasoned players as a right-of-passage. The case makes for a disturbing example of harassment, hazing, and workplace bullying, not to mention extortion.
The employer in this case, the Miami Dolphins, is also alleged to have supported many of Incognito’s actions as a justifiable way to “toughen up” the young player. While this case is extreme, it offers us a clear lesson that workplace bullying is a real thing and needs to be dealt with when it occurs.
Workplace bullying is a situation where there is repeated mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that generally takes the following forms:
- Verbal abuse
- Offensive conduct and/or behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
- Work interference – sabotage – that prevents work from getting done
At present, there is no federal law defining or prohibiting workplace bullying. Most bullying is subtle and does not usually involve explicitly illegal discrimination or harassment (mal-treatment on the basis of one’s race, religion, gender, age, disability, pregnancy, military service, or sexual orientation). That said, while most bullying may not be illegal, it is quite harmful and common.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) (www.WorkplaceBullying.org
), bullying is four times more common than illegal harassment or discrimination. Only one out of five cases of bullying involves discriminatory conduct. In the Miami Dolphins case, however, Incognito’s racially-charged harassment, if found to be true, would certainly constitute illegal discrimination and harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Most bullying cases are less blatant than the Dolphin’s case. They are also surprisingly frequent. According to a 2007 study conducted by the polling firm Zogby International on behalf of the WBI:
- 37% of American workers (approximately 53 million people) report being bullied at work
- Most bullies are bosses (72%)
- More perpetrators are men (60%) than are women (40%)
- Most targets (57%) are women
- 71% of female bullies target other women; men target men 54% of the time
- 45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems
- 40% of bullied individuals never tell their employers
The fact that most of this type of harassment isn’t technically illegal doesn’t mean there aren’t risks for employers. Employers who tolerate or ignore workplace bullies can be contributing to a hostile workplace. If bullying is severe enough to be considered threatening, intimidating or creating a toxic work environment, an employer could face a charge of maintaining a hostile work environment or of constructive discharge (creating an environment that coerces the employee to quit.)
While the legal risks are real, so are the costs of workplace bullying. Cases of bullying have been associated with low employee productivity, workplace stress, increased absenteeism and high turn-over. In fact, there is a strong correlation between bullying and mental and physical health problems, both of which can have a significant impact on health care expenditures, poor productivity, poor customer service and decreased morale.
So what should you do to create a bully-free workplace?
- Develop a policy that clearly defines workplace bullying and how the company will handle cases of bullying.
- Train your managers and supervisors to recognize bullying and train them on how to investigate and handle incidents of bullying.
- Encourage reporting of bullying and clearly state the process and procedures for reporting bullying.
- Take all allegations of bullying seriously.
As with most elements of your workplace, how leadership sets and communicates the standard has a direct relationship to the culture of the organization. In the case of the Miami Dolphins, not only was management alleged to have done nothing to prevent the harassment and bullying of its rookie player, it is alleged to have encouraged it. Even though bullying is not illegal per se, by setting the standard that you do not support and will not tolerate workplace bullying, you will go a long way toward preventing this very real and costly phenomenon from happening in your office.
Claudia St. John is president of Affinity HR Group, LLC, IIABNY’s affiliated human resources partner. Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as IIABNY and their member companies. To learn more, visit www.affinityHRgroup.com.