On February 14, New York attorney Ted Wells issued a 148-page report on “issues of workplace conduct at the Miami Dolphins.” The National Football League retained Wells to investigate workplace bullying allegations made last November by Dolphins player Jonathan Martin. Wells concluded, “Martin was subjected to persistent harassing language” consistent with workplace bullying, which also targeted other Dolphins employees. In response to the Wells report, the Dolphins fired their head trainer and an assistant coach.
The Dolphins scandal brought national attention to the subject of workplace bullying. While the Wells report acknowledged, “We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office,” even a professional locker room must enforce certain well-defined limits. No business can afford to have employees mentally or verbally abusing one another.
Small businesses can learn a number of important lessons from the Dolphins scandal. While the NFL is not a typical office or retail store, all business owners must deal with conflicts between employees. The Dolphins handling—or mishandling—of its employees illustrates a number of issues.
1. You Can’t Always Pass the Buck
The NFL is a large nationwide bureaucracy with multiple layers of management. The Wells report was a byproduct of this. Rather than deal directly with Martin’s allegations, the Dolphins shifted responsibility to the league office in New York, which in turn hired Wells to do the heavy lifting.
A small business owner cannot turn to a “commissioner” or pay an expensive outside attorney to deal with an internal workplace conflict. Nor can they hide behind bureaucracy. The Wells report largely exonerated senior Dolphins management, while shifting the blame to lower-level employees. In a small business, the owner does not have the luxury of scapegoats. An owner who fails to address workplace bullying allegations may face lawsuits under federal and Florida civil rights laws, and not just an internal investigation and some bad press.
2. Don’t Look for the Union Label
Like many large employers, the NFL has a unionized workforce. This actually benefits the employer, as workplace conduct rules may be negotiated with a single entity with the legal power to bind all employees. The NFL commissioner, for example, has the authority to arbitrate most internal workplace disputes.
In a small business with at-will employees, the employer has no such protection. As noted above, if an employee feels mistreated or abused, he or she may seek a remedy in the courts. That is why small business owners must be proactive in preventing and addressing workplace bullying claims.
3. It’s Not Enough to Have a Policy
Even before the Wells report, the NFL maintained detailed workplace conduct policies that defined workplace bullying and harassment. But Jonathan Martin felt he could not bring his concerns to management for fear of retaliation. There is no point in having a policy if management creates an environment that discourages enforcement.
Small business owners must establish clear workplace conduct policies for all employees. These policies must enable employees to feel safe in reporting any harmful or potentially illegal conduct. That is the best way for a small business to preempt potential lawsuits.
Most South Florida employers cannot afford NFL-style damage control once an employee conflict goes too far. That’s why every small business owner should work with an experienced Florida business attorney who can advise them on the best practices for dealing with workplace bullying. Contact John S. Sarrett in Naples today if you have any questions.