You do not have to be a die-hard football fan to have heard about the latest bullying scandal at the N.F.L. Richie Incognito, the left guard for the Miami Dolphins, has been suspended indefinitely for bullying and hazing his teammate, Jonathan Martin, the left tackle. Hazing and locker room pranks are common in the N.F.L., but Incognito’s conduct had apparently crossed a line which caused the N.F.L. to step in and investigate the matter.
The most egregious of the attacks by Incognito is a reported voice mail where he physically threatens Martin while using racial slurs. ESPN has published a transcript of the profanity-filled message. Incognito is white and Martin is black. Other bullying tactics by Martin’s teammates included forcing him to pay $15,000 for a party in Las Vegas which Martin did not attend, subjecting him and other rookies to intentional bad haircuts by their teammates, and endless name calling. The last straw for Martin was an episode in the cafeteria where all his teammates stood when Martin tried to sit at their table- a scene commonly played out in high schools all across America.
Incognito’s bad behavior is not news to the N.F.L. According to USA Today, Incognito has been bullying other players both on his team and opposing teams since 2002. Incognito has a history of racking up personal fouls which includes a $50,000 fine for head-butting. This brings into question whether the N.F.L. or the team’s management should be on the hook for this type of behavior.
In the last few years, workplace bullying has been spotlighted as a growing problem. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that 35% of the U.S. workforce (an est. 53.5 million Americans) report being bullied at work; an addition al 15% witness it. Half of all Americans have directly experienced it. However, unless the bullying is tied to a protected category (such as race, sex, disability, age, etc.) it is unlikely that an employee will be legally protected. As a result, state representatives have begun to introduce new laws that will address this issue. The Healthy Workplace Bill, introduced in New York in April 2013, is one such law. If passed, it will hold the employer and the bully liable for bullying behavior.
Even if an employee is not being bullied because of their protected status, it does not mean that the employer is off the hook if it turns a blind eye to bullying behavior. An employee should consult with an attorney to determine what protections they are entitled to if bullying is taking place in his or her workplace. Not only is the law quickly expanding in this area, but so are social norms. As society expectations of a healthy and bully-free workplace becomes more prevalent, employers will have little choice but to step in when they are on notice that such conduct is taking place under their watch.