I have not followed NFL football for many years, but the recent NFL report
about the Miami Dolphins definitely caught my attention. The report, prepared for the NFL by a New York law firm, concluded that Richie Incognito and other Miami Dolphin players inappropriately bullied and harassed offensive lineman Jonathan Martin through improper physical touching and by persistently taunting him with sexually explicit remarks about his mother and sister, and racist and homophobic slurs. Martin abruptly left the Miami Dolphins in 2013.
Unfortunately, the behavior described in the NFL report is not uncommon. Psychologists will tell you that many people harass others for personal power reasons. The harasser often feels more important or virile by seeking to embarrass or intimidate the target and decrease the target’s power.
So, I’m not surprised to hear of bad behavior by NFL players, but I am surprised by the various reactions I’ve heard to the NFL report. I’ve heard people react by saying: “Well, boys will be boys” or “This is football, that’s how people talk to each other.” In fact, though, these reactions run counter to our nation’s laws. The laws regarding sexual harassment apply to all workplaces and all workplace settings – even the NFL. In addition, both women and men are protected by the law – even male NFL football players who may not fit the stereotypical profile of a likely harassment target. Apart from the law, there are business reasons not to tolerate the behavior described in the NFL report. Research shows that workplaces in which employees are bullied or harassed are less productive and less successful.
I do a lot of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for management teams. Most of our discussion is focused on how to prevent harassment and offensive behaviors in the workplace. In addition, I often ask the participants to complete a quiz designed to find out how much they know about harassment law. One question asks: “True or False – Men in male-dominated workplaces usually have to change their behavior when a woman begins working there?” The answer, of course, is “false,” because harassment and offensive, off-color behavior is not appropriate in the workplace regardless of the gender of a company’s employees. On occasion, though, training participants think I’ve asked a trick question and then complain that our harassment laws mean they cannot have fun in the workplace.
This is not a trick question – and we can have fun, just not at the expense of others. We may make mistakes in our interactions with people in our workplaces, but the best way to comply with our laws and enjoy our workplaces is to try to treat everyone with dignity and respect. With that as our mantra, we will not only comply with the law but have happier and more productive workplaces. I cannot help but think that if the Miami Dolphins had used that mantra, they may have had a better season.