HR Lessons from the NFL bullying scandal

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Making waves throughout the sporting world, recent allegations that veteran Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito was bullying rookie Jonathan Martin.

From racial slurs to physical threats, Incognito reportedly tormented Martin for months before the younger player took his complaints to management and anything was done.

Creating a safe, harassment-free workplace is a legal requirement for employers, but it’s also common sense. Bullies lower morale for all employees, not just victims, and can affect engagement, productivity and retention.

So what can HR learn from the Dolphins?

“That’s just the culture here” is not an excuse

Some individuals have tried to excuse the bullying because of the aggressive nature of the NFL, or because locker room culture has always had an aspect of teasing. While it’s true every individual has a different idea of what constitutes harassment, it’s up to the company to establish a safe, welcoming workplace.

In the recent Ontario Human Rights Tribunal case, Lombardi v Walton Enterprises, applicant Paul Lombardi was awarded damages of $20,000 on the grounds of harassment and discrimination based partly on “perceived” traits including disability and homosexuality.

Lombardi admitted that he had also called co-workers, including his boss, by negative terms such as a pejorative implying homosexuality. If such behaviour is happening throughout the company, who is responsible for ensuring no one feels harassed or unsafe?

Employment lawyer Casey Dockendorff from Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti said regardless of company culture, it’s management’s duty to protect its employees.

“At the end of the day it’s not the manager’s job to create a fun environment, it is their job to ensure employees come to a safe respectful workplace,” Dockendorff said. “Effectively, they are the fun police. I hate to put it that way but that’s their role and it’s their job to recognize what is and isn’t acceptable and to ensure that what isn’t acceptable isn’t happening in the workplace.”

It all goes back to respect in the workplace, she added. If you have a respect in the workplace policy, which goes beyond the human rights aspect, you’re not going to run into these issues. In a work environment where employees have a respectful workplace policy and they’re trained on it, this type of behaviour wouldn’t be accepted.

Avoid Bystander Effect

One much talked about aspect of the Miami Dolphins’ issue is that teammates were aware of some of the bullying but did nothing to address it, or bring it to their managers’ attention.

Alberti Center of Bullying Abuse Prevention director Amanda Nickerson says it’s an often overlooked area of anti-bullying policies, but encouraging people to take responsibility for their coworkers’ safety and comfort could help prevent minor issues escalating to major bullying.

 “We are increasingly looking at the power of the bystander, or the people who witness bullying and harassment, and their role,” Nickerson said in a statement.

“We know that bystanders have a powerful influence on reinforcing the behavior (making it more likely to occur) or reducing the behavior or its negative impact by telling the perpetrator to stop, banding together as a group to say it is not going to be tolerated, reporting it or reaching out to provide support to the target.”

Adjusting your anti-bullying policy to encourage people to report bullying behaviour could help you protect your employees. Allow for anonymous reports if necessary, and ensure employees know there will not be negative ramifications for reporting bullying they experience or witness.

 

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