Human Resources News & Insights

Lessons to be learned in NFL’s recent workplace bullying scandal


The ongoing saga of Miami Dolphins’ lineman Richie Incognito’s alleged bullying of fellow player Jonathan Martin brings a critical question about these increasingly common workplace situations: How could the rest of Martin’s teammates let Incognito’s brutish behavior go on so long?  

It’s an important question because while many companies have anti-bullying policies, those policies usually don’t include any mention of co-workers’ role — and obligation — in reporting bullying behavior to management.

If you’re not familiar with the Dolphins story, here’s a quick rundown:

Last week, second-year tackle Jonathan Martin left the team after an incident in the Miami practice facility’s dining hall. He later filed a formal charge with the league, saying Incognito was guilty of player misconduct.

After threatening, obscene and racist voice mails from Incognito were found on Martin’s phone, the team suspended Incognito indefinitely.

Apparently, Incognito’s treatment of Martin had been ongoing since Martin was a rookie.

The NFL being, well, the NFL, there were a lot of macho comments from players about how Martin should have punched Incognito in the face, and that Martin was “weak” because he went to league authorities to complain about the harassment.

Obviously, those comments have no relevance to the regular workplace.

But there was another concern raised: How did Martin’s co-workers turn a blind eye to what was going on?

‘Bystanders’ important in stopping bullying behaviors

Non-involved workers play a key role in a bullying scenario, according to Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo.

“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.”

Personalities to watch out for

In a recent post, we outlined eight bully types, as identified by

1. The Screaming Mimi. This is the most easily recognizable type of workplace bully. Screaming Mimis are loud and obnoxious, and their abusive behavior is meant to berate and humiliate people. They thrive on the notion that others fear them.

2. The Two-Headed Snake. To a co-worker’s face, this employee acts like a trusted friend or colleague. However, when the co-worker is out of earshot, this person will destroy his colleague’s reputation, stab him in the back and even take credit for his work.

3. The Constant Critic. This bully’s goal is to dismantle other people’s confidence through constant – and often unwarranted – criticism. A critic will look for any possible flaw in a someone’s work and labors tirelessly to kill that person’s credibility. Impeccable work? No problem: This type of bully isn’t above falsifying documents or creating evidence to make others look bad.

4. The Gatekeeper. Every office has at least one employee who gets off on wielding his or her power over others – regardless of whether that power is real or perceived. Gatekeepers deny people the tools they need – whether it’s resources, time or information – to do their jobs efficiently.

5. The Attention Seeker. This type of bully wants to be the center of the action at all times. They’ll try to get on their superior’s good side through consistent flattery and even come off as kind and helpful to their peers – especially the newer employees. However, if co-workers don’t provide the right amount of attention, these bullies can quickly turn on them.

6. The Wannabe. This is an employee who sees himself or herself as absolutely indispensable and expects recognition for everything. But Wannabes aren’t usually very good at their jobs. To compensate, these bullies spend a majority of their time watching more competent workers and looking for areas of skilled workers’ performance to complain about.

7. The Guru. Generally, there’s nothing wrong with this bully’s work performance. In fact, it’s not unusual for a Guru to be considered an expert in his or her own niche area. What these bullies offer in technical skill, however, they severely lack in emotional maturity.

Gurus see themselves as being superior to their co-workers. As a result, they don’t consider how their actions will affect others, aren’t able to fathom the possibility that they can be wrong and don’t accept responsibility for their own actions.

8. The Sociopath. Intelligent, well-spoken, charming and charismatic, sociopaths are the most destructive bullies of all. Reason: They have absolutely no empathy for others, yet they are experts at manipulating the emotions of others in order to get what they want.

Add a clause to your anti-bullying policy

And we offered a few suggestions on what an anti-bullying policy should include:

  • a clear definition of what is considered bullying – along with a list of some of the actual behaviors that meet the definition
  • an outline of how employees can report bullying, including guidance on what to do when the bully is the manager
  • a detailed explanation of the complaint and investigation process that will take place, and
  • a list of consequences of violating the anti-bullying rules.

Following the Incognito incident, we’d like to add one more: A requirement that employees — as part of their job duties — report bullying behavior to their supervisor (or the next person up the chain of command, if the supervisor is the bully), along with a “no retaliation” clause to help employees feel safe about reporting problem behavior.







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  1. Without the racial aspect, it seems unlikely this could have had legs. Some people aren’t nice. Can we really outlaw not being nice without losing a great deal of individual freedom? Who will be the supreme arbiter of “niceness”?

    • It’s not an individual freedom to trample on others, run them down, and make a work environment so intolerable that your “reasonable person” couldn’t tolerate it. Just apply the reasonable person standard to these situations and this will demonstrate what you are asking here.

  2. It’s not about being “nice” – it’s about creating a workplace that is not a “hostile working environment.” Bullying – morality aside – is destructive to the organization as a whole. Now, the team (in this instance) is down two players, and I expect there to be a substantial settlement in the future. This could have been prevented.

    Being respectful, etc., is a culture that does need to come from the top down.

  3. I was retaliated, discriminated and bullied at work….no one would assist me in trying to stop the unfair behavior. Not all staff knew, but upper management and city human resources turned a blind eye to the two headed snake boss lady I dealt with. Other employees were allowed to do work under my name despite my protest of the unfairness. All other staff could use their own login and did not have to share their login with other staff, just me. I was singled out and made to feel unwelcome most of my day from her and her cronies.This was a sad situation after being there with no problems on the job for many years.

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