By Catherine Mattice
Recently the media has focused on the Miami Dolphins as news broke that Jonathan Martin left the team due to the hostile environment created by the over 1,100 nasty text messages sent by teammate Richie Incognito. Without knowing the whole story because I’m not involved in the incident, there are still some valuable lessons to be learned in what the media has reported.
Lesson 1. Workplace bullying and harassment are not the same thing. I’m not sure how or why this situation has sparked a lot of conversation around workplace bullying, or why the media keeps calling Incognito a bully. Actually, Incognito is a better poster-child for workplace harassment.
Workplace bullying and harassment are the same thing in that both behaviors come from a place of seeking power over another, and generally are ongoing and repeated. Both include behaviors such as taunting, teasing, manipulating or humiliating another person.
Where they differ is that workplace bullying is legal and harassment is illegal. Laws around harassment are only focused on protected classes: race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, gender, etc. When the behavior is not focused on protected classes then it’s bullying and it’s legal. Because Incognito’s texts were allegedly racially-motivated, Incognito’s behavior is harassment and Martin has a legal case if he chooses. If the texts did not include racial material, then they’d be bullying and Martin likely wouldn’t have any legal recourse, as many targets of workplace bullying can attest to.
All states have strict laws holding school districts accountable for ending bullying among students. Federal law and state laws hold businesses accountable for ending harassment aimed at protected classes, but no federal or state laws exist to hold businesses accountable for ending equal-opportunity harassment (bullying).
Lesson 2. Workplace bullying can only be resolved by targeting the organizational culture. Bullying and harassment don’t happen in a vacuum – the culture plays a large role in whether these behaviors will thrive in an organization. This is highlighted in Incognito’s statements to the press reported at Fox News: “Incognito said he regretted using the racist, profane language” but that it “speaks to the culture of our locker room.”
If bullying and harassment are tied to organizational culture then the only way to eradicate them is to use systemic measures that address the culture. Dolphins owner, Steven Ross, is on the right track according to his statement, posted on NFL.com. His action plan includes an investigation from an independent third party, a review of policies and changes to the code of conduct, a committee charged with making the Dolphins “the best workplace you can find in the NFL,” and a leadership initiative to find ways of ensuring accountability to standards of behavior. Right on, Ross!
Lesson 3. Anyone who is targeted by a bully should stand up for themselves. Many targets of bullying are paralyzed, and therefore don’t speak up for themselves, for many reasons, 1) the startling realization that adults can treat each other with horrific nastiness, 2) knowing that a person has psychological power over them, 3) fearing that filing a complaint could result in backlash from the bully and/or the organization, and 4) knowing leaving isn’t necessarily an option due to saved up pensions, expected upcoming bonuses, or lack of job availability. For these reasons, and many others, targets often feel trapped.
So kudos to Martin for being an example. He’s sending the message that even if the game is one of aggressiveness, the relationships between players should not be. Many other workplaces share the NFL’s aggressive culture (e.g., sales, construction, manufacturing) but employees aren’t allowed to harass each other there either. I hope Martin will inspire others who feel trapped by workplace bullying or harassment to stand up for themselves. He didn’t take it, and neither should anyone else.
Catherine Mattice is president of Civility Partners, LLC, a consulting firm focused on ending workplace bullying; and co-author of the book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, with a foreword by Ken Blanchard. Note: Catherine Mattice is also the author of articles on workplace bullying that appeared in the Journal of Employee Assistance and the Employee Assistance Report . For more information on these publications, check out http://www.eapassn.org and www.impact-publications.com