Bullying in the Workplace

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Nelson_and_the_bullies

One of the top sports stories in the news lately has been the issue of player bullying in the NFL. Recently, a rookie player for the Miami Dolphins, a 312 lb., 6’5″ tackle, suddenly resigned due to accusations of bullying by another player, foregoing a high six figure salary.  Certainly not your typical target, how is it even possible that the allegations (including physical, verbal and mental abuse) could be true? Who in their right mind would bully a 6’5″ giant?  Except maybe another 6′ 300 lb. giant.

But that’s not the real story here.  Several of the accused player’s teammates and many other NFL players are defending the accused, primarily on the basis that this is a common and accepted practice in the league, particularly with rookie players.  Think of it as harmless “initiation” or “hazing”.  In the eyes of many within the NFL community, these alleged actions were simply a means of toughening up the victim, preparing him for the rigors of the sport.  And since the victim ultimately could not take the abuse and subsequently resigned from the team, the team and league are now at a better place – after all it’s about survival of the fittest.  For the NFL, this story is far from reaching its conclusion.

Unfortunately, similar bullying practices do occur in the workplace, often by senior workers against newer hires — even by managers and supervisors against their direct reports. Have you ever witnessed a new employee intentionally being overloaded with work by coworkers, desk stacked with extra paperwork while his or her colleagues quietly gather and snicker at him by the coffee machine? Or a supervisor overloads his naive employee with additional projects, only to take credit for his fine work, then chalking it up to “paying your dues”?

Are these actions really harmless, and can they potentially “toughen up” employees, or in some way make them better workers, preparing them for the rigors of their job? The answer lies in the attitude of the perpetrator and the nature by which the “abuse” is perceived.  Obviously physical harm, offensive language, and other serious (or illegal) actions are never acceptable.  But that extra pile of paperwork, the fake mouse-in-the-drawer trick, targeted and coordinated ribbing, and other activities performed with good intentions, can build a sense of camaraderie with new hires.  Even tenured employees can gain from some strategically targeted “attacks”, driving them towards greater achievement and a perception of leadership — because it’s commonly the leaders or alpha types that initiate the pranks.  They have visions of becoming the new prankster-in-residence.

What about pranks that cross the line but are not necessarily illegal? Or shenanigans that are more malicious in nature? It is really all about the attitude and disposition of the perpetrator(s).  It may ultimately be the role of HR to determine which activities are harmless and which cross the line of decency and professionalism. In either case, if this type of activity does occur in your workplace, it needs to be monitored carefully, and a formal written standard code of conduct must be maintained and distributed to all employees. The consequences of an angry or distressed employee can be costly to the organization on many levels, including lost productivity, reputation in your industry, legal fees and much more.

So definitely encourage fun in the workplace, but keep an eye out for potential abusers, and never dismiss the complaints of employees, no matter how mild.  Employees might fear retribution and may phrase their grievances carefully, hiding their true concerns — until they decide to take action against the organization.  I recommend a published Code of Conduct and an Anti-Discrimination/Anti-Retaliation policy, no matter how small your organization is. It will be interesting to see what happens with the NFL bullying case. Stay tuned.

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