You don't need to be an NFL football fan to appreciate how poorly the Miami Dolphins as an organization has handled their personnel issues of late. Last week it was widely reported that a Miami Dolphin's lineman complained about being harassed and bullied by a teammate. Later it was reported that the organization encouraged the "toughening up" of the player (who reported being bullied after-the-fact).
Although there are significant differences between being in the employ of an NFL team and a more conventional employer, there are a great many more similarities.
The Dolphins, apparently, have permitted bullying (carefully coded as "hazing") to be allowed both in the locker room and on the field - in other words, in the players' workplace, because the football field is just as much a "workplace" as your office or manufacturing floor might be.
Just so that we're clear, bullying has many definitions, but the one that the Workplace Bullying Institute uses is: "Bullying is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved. Bullying is a non-physical, non-homicidal form of violence and, because it is violence and abusive, emotional harm frequently results" (Gary Namie, PhD.).
Since US employment law does not (yet) explicitly state that workplace bullying is "illegal" this topic largely goes ignored until it enters into a more "recognizable" harassment complaint. Be warned though, those who procrastinate, ignore or pretend that it will go away will, more than likely, find themselves in court, on their way to court or attempting to avoid court (via arranging a financial settlement of some kind).
What the Dolphins can teach us NOT to do
1. Don't let the workplace culture manage itself.A workplace culture is made of a team of individuals focused on several work-related priorities and at times can lose focus on what proper social interaction looks like in the workplace. Senior leadership needs to not only set the tone, but sustain and enforce a safe, bully-free workplace (which really means creating a "zero tolerance" workplace).
This, of course, is setting the bar pretty low; the goal should be to create a professional, progressive-minded workplace that encourages idea-sharing and thoughtful risk-taking, where bullies are afraid to conduct unprofessional behavior due to their own fear of chastisement.
2. Don't pretend (and hope) that the bully or bullies will cease and desist on their own. Once a bully starts, unless detoured by a larger more authoritative force (e.g., the organization, the management team or others), the bullying will increase not decrease. When no corrective action is taken a bully is emboldened to do and say more, not less.
3. Don't fail to take complaints seriously. "Joe always complains about everything and everyone!" It can indeed be very difficult to take all complaints or reports seriously. Make certain, however that you follow up with the individual reaching out. Interview the employee as well as others and do so swiftly and in a fashion where you document factual content as you go. Do not allow a significant time to lapse between the bullying complaint and your action. Remember, a workplace bully is a constant force.
4. Don't minimize concerns. If there is a legitimate issue, take concise action. Let the bully know that the behavior will not be tolerated and that a, "I was just joking with her" statement is not an acceptable defense. Shrugging off issues that may seem relatively small will invite those small issues to grow into large, problematic and potentially expensive issues.
Although we do not know exactly what the Miami Dolphins organization's initial response was, we do know that whatever it was it was grossly inadequate. Moreover, if even a single employee (player) felt that it was okay to "haze" or bully another, then the failure of the system is simply not debatable.
What you risk if you ignore workplace bullying
1. Unhappy employees. If left alone you will eventually adopt unhappy employees who feel imprisoned and helpless.
2. Loss of productivity. Unhappy and disenfranchised employees are not efficient employees. No surprise there. Bullying impacts your bottom line, even if it does not show itself on your profit and loss statement.
3. Brain drain. Your employee attrition rate will increase, guaranteed. It is only a matter of time. For this reason alone you should ensure that bullying behavior is kept at bay.
4. Lawsuits. The costs of settling a lawsuit can be painful. Allowing workplace issues to get to this phase may be a good sign that proper attention has not been paid to this matter (especially if this is not the first time a lawsuit has been filed).
5. Your reputation. Let's face it, your company is not maximizing its full potential if your reputation is not vibrant, progressive and healthy. If word gets out that your workplace is hostile or that your leadership team allows for hazing, bullying or harassment you will spend the next several years rebuilding your organization's good name.
How Employers Can Set the Cultural Tone
Unfortunately, the Miami Dolphin's organization is not the only company who has not known either how to (1) handle a bullying complaint; (2) know what to do after the concern has been shared; (3) how to care for the employee sharing the concern during the investigative phase and (4) how to arrange a leadership team who is charged with creating a safe culture to prevent it from occurring to begin with. Creating a strategy with your leadership team prior to a complaint is the best way to establish a culture that rejects this type of behavior.
How to keep bullying from infecting your workplace or team.
1. Culture building. Before training occurs, the employee handbook is developed or hiring of new employees is done, the leadership team needs to discuss how to build a safe workplace culture for its employees. Again, a "zero tolerance" policy is best. If an employee chooses to ignore this policy then that employee chooses to work someplace else.
2. Employee training. Training for supervisors and for employees should be scheduled annually. Moreover, if there are employees who struggle with obeying these guidelines then begin coaching this employee immediately and often.
3. Develop the "Zero Tolerance" policy. Not only will this become a policy for the employee handbook, but once again it will help you create a workplace culture that all understand and appreciate.
4. Create a whistleblowing program. Employers need to encourage their employees to step up and put a voice to what they experience, witness and/or suspect. Again, once a culture of trust is established with your employees then people will eventually share their experiences.
5. Be known for swift follow up. When employees do share concerns an investigation should be started immediately. You may find the complaint to be invalid and the investigation concludes the following day, but make certain that you look into the situation and that you follow through with involved team members so that closure is recognized by all.
Finally, a special note: from the complaint phase to the investigation phase, clear through to the follow up phase, make sure that you, or whomever is investigating, are documenting everything: the discussions, your findings, etc. Document facts only, not your opinions and be sure that you use names, dates, and quotes whenever possible.