On Research

The "On Research" blog has been discontinued, but Safety+Health now publishes Q&As with Journal of Safety Research contributors under that name.

‘Classic case of bullying’

February 27, 2014

By now you’ve probably heard about the NFL’s Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. In October 2013, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team following an incident that has been revealed to be part of a larger pattern of taunts and inappropriate touching from teammates, namely guard Richie Incognito.

A recently released report, authored by attorney Ted Wells (who was hired by the NFL to investigate the matter), determined this was a “classic case of bullying, where persons who are in a position of power harass the less powerful.”

The report is based on interviews with players, coaches and staff, as well as records of emails and text messages. In one text message, Martin makes clear the toll the treatment is taking on him. He tells his mother: “I’m never gonna change. I got punked again today. And I never do anything about it. I was sobbing in a rented yacht bathroom earlier.”

The report goes on to say that Martin even contemplated suicide. If that doesn’t convince you that workplace bullying – whether in a locker room or a boardroom – isn’t a laughing matter, consider this: A new study from Boston Children’s Hospital finds that children who’ve been bullied are more likely to have poor mental and physical health, depression, and low-self-esteem.

Sure, kids haven’t had as much time as adults to develop a thick skin to shrug off insults, but is it any stretch to think that adults who are verbally beaten down by co-workers may suffer psychological wounds? And if that’s the case, what responsibility do employers have to intervene?

The Dolphins initially suspended Incognito, and just last week fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill – both of whom the report depicts as being aware of the mistreatment and at times participating. As reported by the Miami Herald, team owner Stephen Ross said bullying conflicted with the organization’s values and Turner and O’Neill had “exhibited poor judgment at times.”

It’s important to remove managers who allow this type of behavior to occur, but how do you get the bullies to realize their behavior is harmful and wrong, and get other workers to stand up – rather than further antagonize – the victim?

The Wells report concludes by saying, “We encourage the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.”

Given the seriousness of the bullying episodes described in the report, that’s a pretty weak recommendation that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

Changing rules and personnel is easy; changing culture is not.

The opinions expressed in "On Research" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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