What Your Company Can Learn from the NFL


The term “bully” may make you think of school kids on the playground, throwing insults and stealing lunch money. Many adults don’t realize that bullying isn’t just a childhood phenomenon. It’s actually a much broader practice occurring in college, on the internet, and even in the workplace. Here in Hawaii, we have various support groups and programs which work to prevent bullying in schools. However it’s up to employers to monitor for and end bullying within their own workplaces.

An estimated 53.5 million Americans, or 35 percent of the workforce, are victims of bullying at work. Workplace bullying takes on many forms including manipulation, verbal degradation, and taking credit for another person’s work. It can be difficult for managers to recognize or know how to respond to bullying behavior. So, more often than not, the behavior is ignored or overlooked.

That’s what happened recently when Miami Dolphin lineman Jonathan Martin complained about being bullied by teammates. (Yes, even a six-foot-five, 312 pound professional football player can be the victim of bullying.) It is reported that not only did Miami Dolphins coaches ignore the complaint from Martin, they also encouraged teammates to “toughen up” the player. The relentless bullying Martin received from one player in particular, Richie Incognito, led Martin to twice consider suicide before leaving the team mid-way through the season to seek psychological help. The incident has since become national news and has put the team and the NFL in very poor light.

Although you may find it difficult to compare your company to the NFL, there are a few lessons that can be learned from this unfortunate workplace bullying incident.

  1. It’s important to actively promote a positive workplace culture
    A positive work environment doesn’t magically happen—it is created when company leadership sets the tone for how employees are expected to treat one another. Because the NFL has created and encouraged a culture where hazing, teasing, and bullying is an accepted practice, the Miami Dolphins incident is sadly not an unexpected or rare occurrence. Don’t let your workplace culture manage itself; make clear what type of behavior is and is not permitted in your company.
  2. Always take bullying complaints seriously
    If you do receive a direct complaint or hear rumors of bullying happening at your worksite, don’t ignore it. The best thing to do is take immediate action. Time will not fix bullying behavior. In fact, the longer the bullying persists, the greater the chances that the incident could become dangerous—for the bullied employee and for your company’s reputation.
  3. Never join or participate in acts of employee bullying
    Although this last point is fairly obvious, the final lesson that a company manager should take away from the Miami Dolphins incident is to never engage in or encourage bullying. Remember that even just ignoring a bullying complaint reinforces the bad behavior. Encouraging or participating in employee bullying will not only damage company productivity, it’s also likely that these actions will become known in the community and put your company in a bad light.

Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue that cannot and should not be ignored. Not only is bullying a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of your employees, it also has wider implications for your company, including reduced profitability, low morale, and increased absenteeism and staff turnover. Learn from the mistakes of organizations like the Miami Dolphins and tackle workplace bullying behavior head on.

To learn more about bullying at work, click here.