When contemplating what constitutes bullying, it would be easy to rely on stereotypes of the meek and the aggressive. The weak and the strong. Frequently though, we are reminded that bullying can take many forms and affect many people.
This week, the Miami Dolphins, an American Football team for the less sporting among us, were at the centre of a media furore. Jonathan Martin, a 6”5, 312lb, offensive tackle for the Dolphins, left the team abruptly, citing as his motivation the behaviour of his improbably named team mate, Richie Incognito.
It is inevitable when people are thrown together at work that there will be instances of bullying, and certainly instances of perceived bullying. What is crucial is how the employer handles such situations.
Whilst it remains unclear whether the tales surrounding Martin’s departure are fact or fiction, they are certainly instructive of how not to approach bullying in the workplace. For instance, it has been suggested that Incognito was simply acting on his Coach’s order to ‘toughen’ Martin up. Another story goes that the Dolphins’ Manager suggested the unpleasantness between the two players might be resolved if Martin punched Incognito!
The argument may be advanced that such a ‘robust’ approach should be viewed within the context of the tough, competitive world of contact sport. Some may say that Martin was simply ‘sensitive’ or, perhaps, ‘opportunistic’, in the face of team banter (banter being an explanation often deployed in response to complaints of bullying). Others would take a black and white approach and say behaviour designed to bait and tease is never excusable in a work environment.
Whatever your personal stance, employers are advised to take a common-sense approach. Without being overbearing, employers should be alert to behaviour that some may find offensive or intimidating. This includes the modern-day minefield that is social media and the old classic that is the work night out. An environment of open communication should be cultivated to encourage those who may otherwise be too scared to stick their heads above the parapet to come forward. Comprehensive grievance and disciplinary policies should be established, circulated, and enforced. And the old adage of being innocent until proven guilty should remain central to the process. In your bid to tend to the apparently wounded, do not neglect the alleged bully and how they may be feeling given the claims made against them. To do so could lead to further discord and perhaps even formal action.