Often people think of bullying as only being the domain of children and their schoolyard teasing.
But, when it became common knowledge that Miami Dolphins’ lineman Richie Incognito had harassed his teammate, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, to the point of causing Martin to quit for the season, an often overlooked phenomenon — bullying in the workplace — was brought to light.
Martin’s decision to leave the team, at least for this season, should not have been a surprise. Workplace conflict has been shown to lower rates of employee productivity, increase absenteeism, cause loss of public confidence and increase health complaints. Or, as in the severe harassment cases such as Martin’s, workplace bullying also leads to high employee turnover rates.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an NFL player, a teacher or a dishwasher, no one should have to give up their livelihood because of bullying.
The failure to recognize the harms of bullying can be due to many reasons, including what questions about what behaviors should be considered harassment, the roles of the people involved in these behaviors and even the cultural environment of the business or organization itself. It was only a year ago celebrities and the public in general realized that bullying at its worse can and does lead to “bullycide,” suicide caused by bullying.
Let’s define the problem — what is bullying?
The textbook definition of bullying is the repeated mistreatment of an employee by a person or group of people with malicious intent, humiliation, intimidation and sabotage of the person.
How bullying translates into real life is often in the form of insults, criticism of ability, yelling, stealing credit, inconsistent application of rules, sabotaging work, discounting of accomplishments and exclusion.
On paper, these forms of bullying seem easy to point out. In reality, it is entirely possible that co-workers, and even supervisors, may not believe that these behaviors are forms of harassment.
According to retired NFL player, John St. Clair, who has played for several professional football teams including the Miami Dolphins, “There is a big difference between hazing and bullying. Hazing is a rite of passage that all rookies have to endure. On the contrary, bullying happens to kids in high school and is unheard of in the NFL until now.”
Moreover, “You have to be a grown man to play and make an impact in the NFL. Consequently, there are times when you have to let other players know if they crossed the line in anyway, either verbally or physically. That’s just the nature of the game of football,” St. Clair said. “This is a rare, a unique situation. I met Incognito once, and he seemed to be a very nice guy. However, the racist text message that he sent to the Martin kid is completely unacceptable. He seemed very comfortable saying these things, which indicates that he’d been allowed to use these words before.”
Bystanders and even the harassers themselves can perceive the situation differently from those who are the targets of bullying.
Relational bullying is one of the most popular forms of bullying. This is where friends and relatives think that the victim and the bully are best of friends, but the victim is feeling just the opposite. The victim seems to smile and go along because he doesn’t know what to do — he’s lost control.
Gender expectations play a role in harassment. Sexism can lead to bullying. Society expects men to behave in a certain way to prove their manliness.
In the end, providing a safe work environment is everyone’s responsibility.
Every job situation, every organization and every school must deal with it. We have got to stop sweeping bullying under the carpet as if it’s OK.
The locker room, the schoolyard or the work place: The Miami Dolphins incident reveals that bullies are everywhere.
Priscilla Dames is the founder and president of Wingspan Seminars, LLC, which provides training for the prevention and intervention of conflict and crises.