Balancing Act: Dolphins locker room not only workplace with a bully

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It's easy to get bullied at work. Speaking up is another story.

Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin has shown us that bullying can happen and refusing to tolerate those working conditions takes courage.

The question now is what it will take for professional sports and Corporate America to address bullying in the workplace.

Mr. Martin, 24, abruptly left the Dolphins after an incident in the team cafeteria and filed a formal grievance of player misconduct against teammate Richie Incognito.

As the world of sports debates whether Mr. Incognito's alleged bullying of Mr. Martin was part of a hazing culture that leadership ignored, what has become clear is that abuse in the workplace finally is getting attention.

So far, the Dolphins' response to the allegations that they fostered an unhealthy work environment is "we take this seriously." Yet if management were serious, how did the behavior happen in the first place? It is the same question employees in companies across the country have asked at their own job sites.

Hostility in the workplace is large enough of a problem that 36 percent of workers say they have encountered it -- that's at least 1 in 3. Some experts even have called workplace bullying an epidemic that has been exacerbated by a recession that created job insecurity.

"Much of it goes undetected because people live in fear of keeping their jobs," said Paul Spiegelman, a workplace culture expert. "It's really an indictment of leaders who turn a blind eye or don't have enough of an early warning system to know what's going on in their businesses."

Typically, the workplace bully is someone who has higher status. The bad behavior often includes insulting another employee or humiliating him or her in front of others, undermining another person's work or consistently drawing attention to a co-worker's flaws.

Being the victim can affect someone's physical and mental health. There also is some evidence that employees who are bullied tend to take more sick days because of stress.

But in most workplaces, speaking up -- particularly against a high performer or boss -- typically doesn't go well.

A 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute survey shows that 53 percent of employers did nothing when employees reported a workplace bullying incident. In 24 percent of cases, it was even worse: The person who complained got fired.

One of the biggest challenges in getting management to take action is that bullying is hard to define, explained Kelly Kolb, a labor lawyer with Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There are laws against sexual harassment or discrimination, but there is nothing that requires people to treat each other nicely."

True, workplace bullying is not illegal in any state.

The Dolphins incident highlights the sometimes-ignored fact that bullying in the workplace isn't just a moral problem but also is a managerial and economic one. Ignoring bullying can cost a business in myriad ways. It could cost the team in legal consequences, performance, team attendance, contract costs and public relations fees, according to Patrick Rishe, the founder/director of Sportsimpacts and an economics professor at the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology at Webster University in Missouri.

In other workplaces, bullying has been shown to destroy productivity and lead to turnover. Studies show co-workers who witness bullying are as likely as victims themselves to look for a new job.

Donna Ballman, a Fort Lauderdale labor attorney who represents individuals, advises anyone who is being bullied at work to keep track of incidents and start looking for another job.

Bullies frequently cross the line into illegal behavior at work, giving the victim legal recourse. Just last month, a mentally challenged Texas man claimed victory after a jury awarded him almost a half-million dollars in a discrimination and harassment suit against the Kroger supermarket chain. Karl Tipple, 25, claimed a store manager made his life miserable because of his disabilities and verbally bullied him.

"Employers don't have to provide a stress-free work environment, but they do have to provide one that doesn't violate someone's civil rights," said Miami attorney Marc Brandes of Kurkin Brandes.


Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com.

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