Bullying is rarely simple.
We're seeing that play out in graphic detail with the Miami Dolphins football team. Offensive lineman Jonathan Martin fled the team and accused fellow lineman Richie Incognito of bullying him, saying Incognito left a racist and threatening voice mail and sent inappropriate texts and emails, among other things.
There was enough evidence of wrongdoing that the Dolphins suspended Incognito, but the incident has become a nettlesome mess of accusations and defenses. It's important to step away from the specifics of that situation and acknowledge three things:
•The field or locker room of a National Football League team is a workplace, like any other.
•Bullying exists, to varying degrees, in every workplace.
•A company pardons, ignores or encourages bullying at its own peril.
"This may be a magnifying glass on what we see happening everywhere," Philippe Weiss, of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, said of the Dolphins' situation. "I think it illustrates how bullying can happen anywhere. Often people have no real way to define it; they don't know when to step up. Imagine how difficult it is to stop it or how to tell when it gets to that tipping point where it's gone too far."
Unfortunately, there are no laws to address workplace bullying. (Go to healthyworkplacebill.org to look at proposed legislation being pushed by the Workplace Bullying Institute.)
So I asked Weiss, managing director of his firm's compliance services and training subsidiary, how companies can implement effective anti-bullying policies.
He said that such policies are often aimed at protecting the company from liability. But anti-bullying policies need to go well beyond that and clearly articulate what kind of interpersonal behavior is unacceptable.
Then — and this is key workers need to be involved in the development process. Don't hold a meeting in a conference room and run through a quick PowerPoint presentation of your anti-bullying policy.
"That stuff is useless," Weiss said. "It's passive, and people are not interacting and engaging. If you don't have that, it's not going to work."
Ask workers how they would handle hypothetical situations; ask them whether a certain action rises to the level of bullying. This gets people thinking about their own behavior and the behavior of others and guides everyone toward a common goal.
"People will be much more likely to step up and back-check other people's conduct before it crosses the line," Weiss said.
The next step is to consistently enforce the rules and create an environment in which people can speak up if they feel mistreated.
"Most of the time, workplace bullying ends when the person who's being bullied elects to leave the job," said Carrie Goldman, author of "Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear." "The anti-bullying policy at a company really means nothing unless it's followed on a day-to-day basis by people from the top down."
Goldman said workers who are bullied can help their companies' enforcement efforts by keeping track of what's happening and collecting as much evidence as possible.
"When it comes to any kind of mistreatment, the balance of power is going to be against the person who is being mistreated," she said. "The only way you'll be able to obtain relief is if you do what Martin (the Dolphins player) did, which was to document it. If you get a mean email, you print it out. If you get a nasty text, take a screen shot. That's the easy stuff to document. What's harder is the underhanded credit stealing or trying to hurt someone's reputation through word of mouth. If that happens and you can get someone to confirm it, you really want to try to get it written down."
Of course, part of the problem with bullying, whether it's on the job or in the schoolyard, is that people's tolerance varies. Gruff behavior may be acceptable to some but offensive to others.
Indeed, some Dolphins players have defended Incognito, saying he's just a tough football player. But that ignores Martin's sensitivities, which must be respected.
This is an area where training will help. Teach your employees to recognize and accept that everyone's different. If someone yells a lot, that doesn't make that person a bully. Some workers might not mind it. And if the yeller stops when told his tone bothers me, all is well.
The goal isn't to homogenize people into politically correct robots. The goal is to teach respect.
Because when respect is absent, things can get ugly. And that's what the Miami Dolphins' problems should teach us all.
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