Workplace

In the NFL or in the office, workplace bullying is tough to find and stop

Updated: 2013-11-06T16:40:02Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

At more than 300 pounds each, offensive line mates Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins aren’t your typical bully and victim.

But it takes something out of the ordinary — the spotlight of professional sports or a noisy lawsuit — for bullying among adults to get the same sort of attention paid to kids’ harassment at school.

Incognito, known for questionable behavior even in his violent sport, was suspended Sunday for allegedly being the ringleader in the systematic bullying of Martin. Martin left the team last week in the face of the harassment, and the National Football League is investigating.

Workplace consultant Leigh Branham of Overland Park understands why Martin left but worries that the bullying took too long to be recognized and controlled by the Dolphins.

“The incident just reminded me that it’s the tip of the iceberg that goes on in the workplace every day,” said Branham, an author and managing principal at Keeping the People.

Though Martin was able to leave the team, leaving a more typical workplace often is not an option for people who need their paychecks. And bullies often aren’t stopped.

Although bullying among the young gets widespread attention, the details of repeated and incessant harassment among adults at work often don’t emerge outside of legal proceedings.

But workplaces are petri dishes to grow an imbalance of power that leads to psychological and sometimes physical damage. Such grown-up bullying — as childish as sandbox behavior — occurs when co-workers haze newbies and when bosses single out employees.

Branham, like other management consultants, finds that there are “really insecure types that have to have power, and they don’t know any way to get it except through bully behavior.”

Some bulliers are truly racist or sexist, but not all. Some simply don’t know how to exert authority or act in a group.

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, has a no-holds-barred assessment of what bullying is and the damage it causes.

It’s a “systematic, laser-focused campaign of interpersonal destruction,” Namie says — a “unilaterally declared war” by the bully against the victim.

Whether sparked by jealousy or inferiority or a misguided attempt to elevate oneself in others’ eyes, the bully often carries on unimpeded because others fear to get involved. That’s especially true when the bully outranks the victim, as in a workplace, where a boss targets an employee and co-workers keep quiet to protect their jobs.

It’s also true in organizations where people keep quiet for the sake of camaraderie or tradition.

In the Miami Dolphins case, Incognito was a 30-year-old veteran and Martin a second-year player.

In the workplace, bullying can take racially tinged forms, such as hanging a noose in the break room. It can be sexually aggressive, such as a boss saying what he’d like to do to a female employee after hours. It can be passive aggressive, such as failing to invite a co-worker to a key meeting or pouncing on a comment to belittle it.

Branham said he finds workplaces where the attitude is that the new guy needs to be taught how to behave or toe the line for a while. It usually passes. When it doesn’t, or when a particular worker is singled out for abuse, that’s when long-lasting problems occur.

SuEllen Fried, a Kansas Citian who formed BullySafeUSA and has earned national acclaim for her anti-bullying efforts, takes care to point out that three people (or more) are usually involved in bullying: the bullier, the target (a term she prefers to victim) and the witness.

Although some cyber bullying and other closeted bullying may occur unknown to others, Fried teaches that “motivating witnesses to take action is key” to halting the harassment.

Authorities agree that tacit acceptance of bullying — whether by fellow athletes or co-workers — allows unwanted, intimidating behavior to continue.

“There’s a fairly high percentage of people who dread going into work,” Branham said. “They’re anxious, depressed, angry. They need their bullies to be confronted. But often there’s denial or lack of awareness at the top that it’s going on, and others lack the courage to step in.”

A particular nuance about workplace bullying is that it can be triggered by the victim’s poor performance. For the victim to go public about the bullying would require admitting his or her poor performance, and many people don’t want to do that, Branham noted.

That’s why, whether at work, on a football team or on a school bus, others need to have courage to step in.

According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, such repeated, intentional efforts to demean or harm someone usually need interference by others to stop. That’s partly because some authorities think that some bullies don’t even realize their actions are hurtful, that they’re acting out their own inner demons without regard to the effect on others.

The U.S. Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department consider bullying a form of harassment with legal consequences if it is tied to race, color, national origin, sex or disability.

What’s important to remember, Namie advises, is that these atypical incidents aren’t conflicts between two equally powered people. A bully usually has the upper hand in size, tenure or authority.

The danger, he says, is letting the power imbalance go on because it’s “just a management style” or common practice.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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