Stopping Bullying in the Workplace

Fisher & Phillips’ Larry Lee and Dan Perkins are featured in a Human Resources Executive Online article on bullying in the workplace. 

“At first blush, it seems almost implausible . . . a 300-lb professional football player claiming to be the victim of bullying? By now, most of the nation has at least heard of the controversy embroiling the Miami Dolphins locker room:  offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the team in late October 2013 and checked himself into a hospital seeking treatment for emotional distress.

The cause of Martin’s departure? Allegations that he endured ongoing harassment and bullying by teammate Richie Incognito. In the weeks since Martin left the Dolphins, the allegations of shocking and outrageous behavior by Incognito and of encouragement or approval of that behavior by members of the Dolphins coaching staff and front office continue to mount. Presently, the National Football League has begun its own investigation, and the issue of workplace bullying has grabbed the nation’s attention. While the saga is far from over and the allegations have yet to be confirmed or refuted by the investigative process, the Martin case presents an interesting study of the blurred lines between “locker room” behavior and workplace harassment. And, while this particular drama has played out in a very public way, at one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, the issue is far from unique to professional sports. Employers in all industries can learn some valuable lessons on employee relations as the Martin case plays out in the international media.

What is Workplace Bullying?

When it comes to addressing the issue of bullying at work, the primary concern among experts on workplace culture is in trying to establish exactly what workplace bullying means. The difficulty lies in defining a range of conduct that is not so broad as to cover every petty slight or disagreement among co-workers — after all, judges have routinely pronounced that the courts do not exist to ensure a conflict-free workplace. On the other end of the spectrum, defining the term too narrowly risks excluding victims who cannot obtain relief under the current cadre of state and federal workplace laws. So, the question remains:  How do we define the term?

Generally speaking, most advocates of workplace bullying legislation initiatives define the term as repeated mistreatment of one or more victims by one or more perpetrators, which results in harm to the physical, mental, and/or emotional health of the victim(s) and interferes with the victim’s ability to perform his/her work. Workplace bullying may consist of verbal abuse and/or conduct (both verbal and nonverbal) which is threatening, humiliating, and/or intimidating.  “

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