Bullying and harassment in the workplace: lessons from the Miami Dolphins

December 01, 2013 - by: Kyla Stott-Jess 0 COMMENTS

By Kyla Stott-Jess

The professional sports world has been buzzing with the sudden departure of offensive tackle Jonathan Martin from the Miami Dolphins. His midseason exit from the team comes amid allegations that he was the victim of harassment and bullying.

The scandal has given the public a glimpse behind closed locker-room doors, into the testosterone-fueled “workplace culture” of professional football—a culture rife with hazing, teasing, and, in this particular instance, aggressive and targeted harassment of a young player. While Martin’s alleged harassment will be dealt with under U.S. laws, his situation draws attention to issues faced by Canadian employers.

Background

Martin began his professional football career with the Dolphins as a second-round draft pick in 2012. According to statements released by his lawyer, the 24-year-old’s short career with the Dolphins has been characterized by consistent harassment from his teammates, including racial slurs and threats of violence directed at him and his family. After an incident in the team cafeteria, he checked himself into a Florida hospital for emotional distress.

In response, the Dolphins suspended the alleged harasser indefinitely, and the NFL began an investigation.

Legal issues and lessons for employers

Many of the issues facing the NFL are no different than those facing other employers: What is expected of employers in cases of workplace harassment? What steps should an employer take to prevent harassment at work? When harassment occurs, what are an employer’s obligations? While the exact requirements vary by province, there are some general guidelines that are applicable nationwide.

Policies and procedures: Employers must establish policies and procedures to address workplace harassment and violence (including threats of violence). Employers must follow through on their policies, including investigating complaints and disciplining employees when appropriate. Management should be vocal and visible in its commitment to maintaining a harassment- and bullying-free workplace.

Be even more cautious in certain industries: The Dolphins scenario is especially relevant for employers whose workplace culture is more likely to produce harassment. While harassment and bullying may be more endemic in certain industries (construction and oil and gas production spring to mind), any workplace with strong hierarchical structures and intense business demands is at higher risk for bullying. In these types of workplaces, employers may want to re-evaluate whether the harassment policies that are in place are effective. Further, these employers should be aware that turning a blind eye to endemic harassment is not a sound employment practice.

Don’t make assumptions: The Dolphins scenario is also a reminder that harassment isn’t limited to situations where an employer might expect it. Physically, Martin is an imposing man at 6½ feet and 312 pounds. Indeed, he is 2 inches taller than his alleged harasser. Martin’s harassment allegations illustrate that the potential for harassment is not dependent on an employee’s physical size. In evaluating the risk for harassment, employers should focus on numerous factors, not just employees’ physical characteristics.

Costs can be wide-ranging: Finally, the Dolphins scenario also reminds employers that the negative consequences to workplace harassment and bullying may extend far beyond legal ramifications. The Dolphins have lost two valuable players in the middle of their season and are the subject of intense media scrutiny. This harassment complaint is costing them a significant amount of money and distracting them from the business of playing football. Workplaces where harassment and bullying occur also suffer financial and image problems—both the bully and the victim are less productive (and less profitable). Also, the bullying produces a less enticing atmosphere for potential clients and new employees.

Lessons apply broadly

The ongoing harassment drama playing out in Miami gives Canadian employers a lot to consider—and possibly change—in order to prevent harassment from occurring in their own workplace. When doing so, keep in mind the specific requirements in your province and be sure not to ignore a festering situation.

About Kyla Stott-Jess:
A 2010 LLB graduate of the University of Calgary, Kyla Stott-Jess is completing her articles with the firm's Calgary office. Once she is called to the Alberta bar in September of 2011, she will join the Commercial Litigation practice group. Kyla plans to develop a broad practice that includes work in corporate/commercial, employment, product liability, energy, privacy, transportation, negligence and contract disputes.
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