Here is another entry in Madame HR’s series that applies Mme Hr’s HR brain to real life or ripped from the headlines situations.
ESPN and even, yes, even NPR has been talking lately about the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. Jonathan Martin, an 2nd year offensive lineman, abruptly left the team last week citing harassing behavior from his fellow teammates that had devolved to the point he couldn’t take it anymore. Below, in green, are key points reported in the news about the case, followed by Mme Hr’s thoughts in black.
Jonathan Martin never told the coach or any member of the team staff or management the real reason he left the team. His agent later informed the team about the behavior of Mr. Incognito.
This is a tough one for the Dolphins to defend. If you’ve ever sat through any sort of anti-harassment training, and let me tell you from personal experience you haven’t lived until you have, a company has the responsibility to provide a safe and harassment-free workplace. Saying they “didn’t know” probably won’t be good enough. And let’s keep it real, I saw the TMZ video of Incognito storming around a bar half naked screaming the “N” word over and over. This guy isn’t exactly what we in the biz call “subtle”. Somebody knew what was going on. And again, we HR types like to say that we ALL have responsibility to stop, report, you know, etc., etc., etc. Cris Carter on ESPN made a similar statement in less corporate-cover-your-ass speak: “where were his teammates when he needed them?”
The team initially denied there was any improper behavior. Then Martin’s agent provided them recordings of voicemails of Incognito saying “Hey, wassup, you half [bleep] piece of [bleep]…I’m gonna slap your real mother across the face. [Bleep] you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
I will confess that when I first heard the story “Miami Dolphins player leaves the team, is staying with his family, complaining that other team members were harassing him,” I thought to myself, “oh, poor baby, are the big bad football bad men being mean to you?” Literally, I think I thought the words “suck it up” and “this is football for criminy sakes, grow some balls you millennial babykins!” Which I suppose is the same reaction the team had to Martin’s departure. And wow, boy do we have egg on our faces now! This is why, dear reader, if you ever receive a claim of harassment from anyone your response is always: “we will investigate!” and not: “Suck it up loser!” The team should have never, never, never, never, never taken a stand without investigating first. Me, as a random fan and occasional blowhard can think whatever the heck I want, but the team, the “employer” in this instance must take any and all claims seriously and must investigate.
Incognito was chosen last year for his first pro-bowl and received the team’s “Good Guy” award for cooperating with local media. He also stars in a stadium video played before every home game encouraging fans to be good sports.
Most players, when asked, insist that Mr. Incognito is a “nice guy” that he just likes to “joke around a lot.”
Oftentimes, harassment, whether it is similar to Mr. Martin’s claims, sexual, or something else, boils down to this. “It was a joke, everyone else thought it was funny.” Ok, ha, ha, ha. It’s funny because this is another one of those situations where the reality of the world and the reality of what we want the world to be are far apart.
We all have the right to a harassment free workplace. Fact. However, I would imagine that most of us are dealing with, or have dealt with, a situation that makes us uncomfortable at work. And that’s life, right? In the moment that “N” word joke might seem funny to you, but leave that group, go home, repeat to your wife and she hits you over the head with a frying pan. I’ve counseled managers that have sent inappropriate jokes to hundreds of people, but it only takes one. And is that harassment, legally? Maybe, read my last post on harassment for more details. It depends on severity, frequency and all sorts of human factors that are hard to quantify.
A panel of ex-players and coaches on ESPN was talking about this and the sentiment was very much that hazing is ok but bullying is not. When I asked out loud and hypothetically what the difference was, my husband, Monsieur HR, very kindly answered (since no one else was in the room), “hazing has a time limit.” Are we saying that it is ok to call someone a “half-[bleep]” and threaten to kill them if they are a rookie? Yes! Yes, we are saying that. Look, I know that hazing is an age-old rite of passage in many hallowed institutions out there—fraternities, the military, the NFL. And, sure, I guess it builds camaraderie and weeds out the pussies and all that but to me it just sounds like an excuse. And I’m not talking from a legal vs. non legal place here, I’m pretty sure the law would call it all bullying, I’m talking about more from a moral point of view. And no one hates getting all moral than me, but think about it.
Keyshawn Johnson, former NFL player and current ESPN analyst, described with a glint in his eye how first year guys have to “carry some extra equipment, pay for a few meals, might get tied to a goalpost.” It all boils down to: “well I had to do that when I was a rookie so I was sure going to make other rookies do it!” it’s like there was this one guy fifty years ago, let’s call him Dale, who was a real dick and he made all the rookies carry his helmet and it just got passed down from there. But, really, don’t we all love to have an excuse to be mean to each other that doesn’t actually make us look like we’re bad people? I mean, I went in to HR, what did you do? KIDDING—ha, ha, did you see what I did there? I’m just kidding <quiet sob>.
But here’s my point. All these former NFL players on TV are saying that Mr. Martin just should have punched him in the face. As an HR Manager this makes me sad, but as an American fan of football, I can’t help but sort of agree with them. So despite the fact that I think all of us agree that harassment is wrong, apparently so is complaining about it. I heard of an anonymous survey of Dolphins players that was done and they said they would rather have Mr. Incognito back in the locker room rather than Mr. Martin.
OK, back to the law. Was this severe? Seems like it. Was it pervasive? Again, I’m going to say yes. There you go, hostile work environment. Somebody is getting sued! And the Dolphins seemed to have missed all of their opportunities to blame someone else, but they’ll probably try. Mr. Incognito will be working at Home Depot by the Super Bowl.
Incognito has had a troubled past. He has led the NFL in unnecessary roughness penalties in the past 4 years and was released by the St. Louis Rams after problems with his coach. In 2009 he was voted the dirtiest player in the league by his peers.
And that, my friends, is why you do background checks.
The venerable James Brown said: “Sometimes guy’s engage in juvenile actions, sophomoric for sure, but team leaders can usually tell if there’s a player who’s reached their limit and it’s getting overboard, those team leaders will step in.”
Oftentimes companies expect their managers and supervisors to be their first line of defense in these situations. This is why, in states like California, we make them sit through hours of anti-harassment training. Why didn’t those leaders step in here? Who knows? Who’s to blame? Now they are saying that team officials wanted Mr. Incognito to “toughen up” Mr. Martin. Ultimately the team must be held responsible. They should have known, probably did, and should have stopped it. Because despite what society might think or want, the law says harassment is illegal. Whether it was hazing or bullying, either way, the team should have stopped it. I’m sure that the league will handle this in the same deft and transparent manner in which they’ve handled the concussion scandal.
In the Dolphins’ stadium program sold on Halloween, Incognito said Martin was the teammate easiest to scare.
Job well done, Mr. Incognito.
And yes, his real name is Incognito. Richard Dominick Incognito, Jr. Somewhere in New Jersey there is another one.