The NFL, Bullying and The Next Big Thing

November 7, 2013

In 1998, 1999 and 2000 I went to the NFL Camps of the Baltimore Ravens and the Minnesota Vikings, and I talked about behavior.  We discussed sexual assault and date rape.  The players were unusually frank and raucous in each case, and the youngest players seemed amazed that they now had a public persona to master.  What struck me was that each year, one of the veterans (and marquee players) stood up when the less experienced players began to argue with the idea of respect and consent, civility and empathy and put a stop to the silliness.  I remember feeling profoundly moved when one Viking (whose picture was on my child’s wall as part of a trio of much-lauded players) stood up and said, “This is for real, guys.  We have a responsibility to the team, to each other and to the people we care about.”

I can’t speak for other teams, but I know there was hazing.  Late to the Ravens due to a bomb threat in downtown Baltimore, I learned they made use of the time by having the freshman players stand on  chairs and sing. I was curious and asked about the extent of the hazing. The coach chuckled about it, and told me how it used to be.  Brutality and humiliation.  No more under him he said.  Maybe carrying the equipment but no cruelty.

The headlines this week about the Miami Dolphin’s situation and the culture of hazing that exists in all or part of the NFL is not new news.  Statements in the media suggest that the degree of hazing varies from team to team, as does the involvement of coaches in setting the tone and calling out the limits.  In fact, several former players have discussed their experiences with hazing varying from silly initiation rites to outright cruelty; those who have survived them often claim the experiences have “bonded them,” or “made them stronger.”    Things get more interesting when you read the quotes from “the personnel men” at the NFL;

“”Locker room culture will never be understood unless you’ve lived or have been around it,” said a personnel man. “This is another ploy in the league’s ‘player safety’ book. Incognito knew who to try. You never heard anything like this come from John Jerry or Mike Pouncey. Instead of being a man and confronting him, he acted like a coward and told like a kid.

Aha.  Now we are getting to the dirty little secret behind bullying.  It is often attached to a visceral sense of exceptionalism and a pattern of enabling.  Once exposed, there is wringing of hands and claims it won’t be tolerated, but that history of enabling renders the organizations’ decrying incidents of bullying wholly unbelievable.  And it is not just the NFL.

The worst bullying cases I have encountered in the last twenty years have occurred in the professions, in academia and in other enterprises that involve super stardom.  The superstars may not live on posters in my child’s room, but they have marquee status on the firm’s letterhead, the university’s endowed chairs, the surgery suite and the charity’s boards.  These are the people who recognize their authority and power and abuse it. The organization, rather than demanding leadership, cowers in response to their misbehavior.  Bullying becomes a badge of success and is passed from generation to generation as a privilege of accomplishment. Those who survive are rewarded with promotions, tenure or other status and dollar-driven rewards. The ability to inure oneself to bullying behavior becomes part of the DNA of success, and the DNA of the organization.  Rather than condemn the rituals and behavior that probably thwarted their best work, targets who thrive through it simply emulate the behavior and denigrate those who cannot or will not survive it.  It becomes a badge of courage.

The hardest part of my work, which at times involves uncovering and at other times involves trying to intervene with, workplace misconduct, is that despite the rush of fear that organizations feel in the face of a complaint,  many of them have become inured to a culture based on an erroneous belief that people will do better when they have been subject to some “toughening up.”  One physician recently told me she cannot respect new doctors because they are protected by rules that limit the number of hours they can be asked to work consecutively in their training; “We would operate under conditions that seemed second only to death in the pain they caused, and I think that made us better,” she said.

There is nothing that actually supports the value of humiliation, abuse, embarrassment, exploitation or terror as a positive source of bonding, motivation or future performance.  There is nothing to be found that suggests that any positive organizational metric is associated with the countenance of bullying or negative hazing.  There is no literature that says being screamed at, called names, threatened, publicly criticized or having things thrown in your direction make you a better employee.  Rather, what emerges when we look at these patterns is a terrible dose of inadequate leadership, lazy ethics and a dull acceptance of the status quo.  This is where the work of combating bullying needs to focus.  It is well established that engagement and a sense of safety and dignity go a long way towards creating innovative, creative and productive employees, whether it is in pro sports or the corporate world.  To all of the organizations that say that this behavior is unacceptable, I issue the following challenge; make bullying behavior a toxin to success.  Make it clear by your words and actions that bullying behavior will block even a super star from further rewards, including promotion.  Expand your harassment policies to include non-protected class bullying and charge the folks at your highest level with promoting those policies and walking the talk.  Protect your whistle blowers and recognize that crawling out under the crushing weight of abuse to report it is an act of profound courage and bravery. Live up to those lofty mission statements that always include “respect” and “dignity.”

The next big thing?  A hard stop on bullying. A commitment to a culture where we name it and we rush to support it’s targets. A decision, collectively and organizationally that it really is as old and useless as a canister of DDT.  It’s a poison we can all now condemn and replace with smarter, safer alternatives.

For those not in the know, there is a bill floating around that would bring US states to the level of civility of most other first world nations. The Healthy Workplace Bill has been introduced in 23 states and passed in none. While opponents continue to throw out arguments that it is vague and bad for business, it is clear the law’s time has come.  It is time for a hard stop, and if the law can help, it should.


Workplace Cruelty: Bullying is Not Just for Kids

May 9, 2012

I’ve been doing a lot of talking about bullies.  Increasingly, employers are asking me to speak with their employees and managers about bullying in the workplace, and the response I have been getting is remarkable.  After every session, whether in a blue-collar setting or a tony professional firm, people approach me and tell me their stories.  And the stories floor me.

Yesterday, a tearful employee asked me what she could do.  Her husband had left an employer after being bullied so badly that he attempted suicide, and now can’t find a job and is heavily medicated and profoundly depressed.  Just days before, a burly man told me haltingly that he has been bullied by colleagues for years, and that he blames himself for being too weak to quit.  Still another employee asked me if throwing a phone at someone was bullying, because a colleague would do this when stressed.

So I have had bullying on my mind.  Bullying is being so persistently mean to someone that it causes them to want to quit, or perhaps they become so overwhelmed by the treatment that they fall apart and get fired.  It is real and it is horrible.  It’s victims often suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—the psychological condition most of us associate with cataclysmic violence, rape, genocide or the witnessing of atrocities.  Ironically, it is not unlawful.  While harassing someone for being of a particular race, religion, color, national origin or gender, amongst other categories, is unlawful under  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, there is no law that specifically ensures that we can go to work, do our job, and be free from brutal, denigrating, humiliating or demeaning treatment from others.  In fact, a lot of bullying is done in the name of “managing performance” or “holding people accountable,” although when you look at the specifics, it is really intended to break someone down so they will quit.

One workplace bully crumpled up a subordinates work and threw it at her, then made her crawl on the floor to pick it up.  Another mocked a colleague in an important meeting by mimicking his words in a high falsetto while everyone laughed at him.  A third screamed daily at an employee for any minor error, reminding the employee that he was lucky that someone so stupid wasn’t fired on the spot.  Imagine experiencing these things in your workplace.  Imagine that others knew it was going on and failed to even say they were sorry it was happening to you.

It is time to take bullying seriously.  The word evokes a childhood problem, but the problem and its impact are anything but childish.  Constant criticism, mocking, catching every micro-error, ostracizing someone or being abusive to someone who cannot escape it without losing their livelihood is psychological violence.  Held hostage by their own economic survival, bullying victims are forced to return day after day to the hands of their abusers with little recourse.  In no time at all, the organization may see them as “the problem,” as their work and psychological well-being suffer.

Companies can and should expand their policies to prohibit harassment for any reason or no reason.  Employees should be encourage to stand up to inappropriately harsh or damaging treatment, and there should be education promoting feedback and supervision that nips bullying behavior in the bud.  Bullying employees and supervisors should be offered coaching to expand their behavioral repertoire, but only with a credible insistence that without such a change, they can no longer be employed by the organization.

In these days of uncivil public debate, political polarization and immersion in worlds where “flaming” someone you disagree with goes unchallenged, the workplace needs to establish clear expectations for professional and businesslike conduct; it is good for business, and it is good for people.

The folks at the Workplace Bullying Institute are trying to change the law from state to state.  It’s a good movement, but I’m not interested in waiting for the laws to change.  It is in every employers profound self interest to simply insist that no one be brutalized in their place of employment; bullies interfere with productivity and morale.  They wreck your employment brand and they wreak havoc with things like transparency, innovation and risk taking.  

For more information, see my article on workplace bullyingBullying Article

The Modified Golden Rule. What do you think?

December 3, 2010

This morning catching up on back reading, I read David Yamada’s post “What if we applied the Golden Rule at Work?”. It brought me back to my earliest days of educating workers and coaching “bad actors” and my struggle with the assertion by many that if we just lived by the Golden Rule, everything would be fine. I am an immense admirer of Yamada’s work, and embrace fully his thinking, but perhaps it is time to modify the rule.

I found several years ago that when educating about workplace behavior, the Golden Rule came up short. Too often, people would say “Well, I wouldn’t care if someone said/did that to me.” Very often, these were bullies or harassers who lacked the empathy or sensitivity to recognize others’ perspectives. I even had one bad actors’ wife arrive to a coaching session with her spouse to explain that she found his behavior acceptable. As a matter of pedagogy and also for purposes of making culture change in organizations, I had to find a way to bring this to the next level.

My thinking led me to this: if we modify the rule slightly, changing it from “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” to “Treat others as THEY would have you treat them,” it increases the complexity of civil behavior substantially, but also reflects the challenges of the real world. Civil and respectful behavior compels a need to understand others and modify our conduct to accommodate THEIR world view. An example I provide is the profound aversion I feel when I hear well-intentioned people saying that this is a “Christian Nation.” As a child of holocaust survivors, it kicks off a ton of aversive feelings and ideas programmed into me at an early age. “But,” cry the learners….”how can we avoid stepping on every landmine?” Some would argue that my response is thin skinned. Others would roll their eyes and moan about “political correctness,” but the fact is that if I tell you it offends me, you can show me that I’m worth a minor modification in your terminology, or that I’m not. One will improve our relationship. One will sour it. So, how to reckon with this? The answer is twofold:

1) In the world of the modified golden rule, it is my responsibility to provide you with feedback. To let you know that my world view is different from yours. I might say “I know that this seems like an innocuous term to you, but it offends me.” This means that I have to be willing to risk triggering a defensive reaction in you, demonstrate courage and give you the opportunity to do the right thing. It’s hard, but necessary.

2) In the world of the modified golden rule, you now know how I’d like to be treated, and you have the opportunity to treat me as I would like to be, even if it is dissimilar from your view on the term. You need to accept that my view is different from yours. Not better, not right, not correct, but different, and that your reaction can build or damage our future interactions.

I’m a pragmatist. I know that speaking up is hard. It is hard to give someone negative feedback. We are largely programmed to “suck it up” when someone bugs us. If you don’t buy that, think to the last time you were on an airplane, and someone wanted to talk to you, but you did not want to talk to them. Did you tell them to leave you alone, or did you signal your discomfort non verbally, or at all? We calculate that it is better to tolerate the unwelcome behavior than to risk offending or upsetting the seatmate.

I assert that while we can afford to tolerate the temporary intrusion of a stranger in a temporary situation, that we must develop a different set of behaviors for our workplaces, where we go each and every day and must carve out a place where we can get our work done in the best possible way. To get to this place, we have to first feel safe to speak up, and secondly we need to learn to take critical feedback on our utterances and actions that may make us defensive, but to view them as key information about what it will take to build a relationship with the person in question. This can only happen when the leaders in the C-Suite demonstrate receptivity, emotional intelligence and the capacity to take criticism and candor (One of the best books on this subject is Michael Roberto’s “Why Great Leaders don’t take Yes for an Answer”)

So, the modified golden rule means this: if every employee, from the top of the organization to the last hired, knows they can speak up if something offends them, and every employee, from top to last hired will do their best to listen, understand and accommodate the concern, you will have a workplace that not only is free from expensive and painful litigation, but you will become an employer of choice.

Slides from the Upper Midwest Employment Law Institute

May 31, 2010

Another fabulous year at the Institute. I enjoyed meeting all the attendees who took time to chat with me, and was pleased to see that the Institute continues to offer a high -quality experience. As promised, I have attached PDF versions of the slides from the three sessions;
Workplace Bullying
Step By Step

Downloadable Article on Workplace Bullying

April 19, 2010

On May 24th, I will be presenting a break out session on Workplace Bullying at the Upper Midwest Employment Law Institute (I will also be presenting the second day alternative plenary on workplace investigations.) I have been studying this issue and dealing with alleged and actual workplace bullies for the past several years. This is a serious problem, exacerbated to some extent by the economic downturn and the need for organizations to cut back. In this article I review the current state of knowledge about workplace bullying and help employers to understand steps they can take to prevent and address the problem. I welcome your comments and feedback. Please credit use of any part of the document to Sepler & Associates.

The document can be found at this link

The “Other” Harassment: The Bully in Your Office

March 24, 2009

“His face was inches from mine,” said the complainant.  “I felt as though he was going to hit me.  He didn’t yell, but spoke so slowly that it was as though I was a child.  I could feel myself shaking.  He told me I was worthless, and then threw the report on my desk and stomped out.”

This (composite) statement was made by a middle aged man in a mid management position, describing one of many incidents involving his male manager.  The history included name calling, public belittling, threats of job loss and the periodic throwing of objects or (in one case) destroying work product.  Desperate, he had gone to see his Human Resources manager who told him, not for the first time, that there was little she could do.  There had been numerous complaints over the years, but this behavior was neither discriminatory nor violent, and therefore was viewed more as a “style issue” than an issue of policy.  This company, like most, did not have a policy prohibiting bullying or “general harassment”–that is  intimidating behavior that is not based on protected class status and does not rise to a level of threats of violence.

“The truth is,” said the Human Resources Manager when seeking my advice,”Frank (pseudonym) is one of our most effective guys, results wise.  He manages up brilliantly and no matter his methods, he gets the job done.  When we’ve tried to influence his leader to take control of the situation, he suggests that we recruit better people for Frank.  He tells us that Frank is a driver, and the problem is his subpar staff.”

What are workplaces to do with the “Franks” of the workplace?  Talented and capable, perfectionistic and goal driven, they are ideal leaders on paper.  Their metrics tend to shine, but not reflect the damage inflicted on others and the unused potential wasted in the process.  In the best of worlds, bullys would be spotted early in their careers and held accountable for their people practices.  Technical expertise would have to somehow be paired with a modicum of emotional intelligence and an understanding of human development.  That doesn’t happen in most organizations, and most particularly in the professions such as law and medicine, where one rises on the strength of their accomplishments, not their relationships.

In May, I will be presenting a short session on  bullies at  Minnesota CLE’s   Strategic Discovery: Preventing Discovery Abuses and Handling Discovery Disputes. It will be focused on attorneys in litigation, but in preparation, I’ve been looking through the files of the many workplace bullies referred to me for coaching over the years.  These folks have agreed to see me because they either recognize they have an issue or they have been told that their career progress or even retention was conditional upon being coached.  From them, I have learned several things: Read the rest of this entry »

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