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The Risk Companies Run When Bullying Goes Incognito

Unless a bully is harassing someone because of a protected class (race, sex, age, disability, religion, national origin) bullying is probably legal.

November 8, 2013

By now, you’ve likely read about Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito and the abusive voicemails and text messages he sent to teammate Jonathan Martin.

Among the voicemails is this gem (per ESPN):

Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of s---. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s--- in your f---ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f---ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F--- you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.

ESPN also report that Incognito did not limit his use of racial epithets to that lone voicemail, and that he also sent Martin a series of texts that included derogatory terms referring to the female anatomy and sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, Fox Sports reports that Dolphins coaches encouraged veterans to toughen up Martin, and knew that some were using hazing as a means to that end.

I’ve never played organized football at any level, and I’m not going to pretend to know of the culture that exists inside its locker rooms. What I do know something about, however, is corporate culture in general. Your company cannot turn a blind eye to hazing and other bullying-related misconduct.

Unless a bully is harassing someone because of a protected class (race, sex, age, disability, religion, national origin…) bullying is probably legal. As the U.S. Supreme Court has famously said, our workplace discrimination laws are not meant to be “a general civility code for the American workplace.” In layman’s terms, our laws allow people to be jerks to each other at work.

Just because it’s legal, however, doesn’t make it right. The question is not whether the law protects the bullied, but instead how you should respond when it happens in your business. If you want to lose well-performing, productive workers, then allow them to be pushed out the door by intolerable co-workers. If you want state legislatures to pass workplace bullying legislation, then ignore the issue in your business. If you want to be sued by every employee who is looked at funny or at whose direction a harsh word is uttered, then continue to tolerate abusive employees.

The reality is that if companies do not take this issue seriously, state legislators will. The high-profile case of Jonathan Martin will only help the cause of those who believe we need workplace anti-bullying laws.

What can you do now to protect your employees?

  1. Review current policies. Most handbooks already have policies and procedures in place that deal with workplace bullying. Do you have an open-door policy? A complaint policy? A standards-of-conduct policy? If so, your employees already know that they can go to management with any concerns — bullying included — and seek intervention.

  2. Take complaints seriously. These policies are only as good as their enforcement. Whether or not illegal, reports of bullying should be treated like any other harassment complaint. You should promptly conduct an investigation and implement appropriate corrective action to remedy the bullying.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.