United States: When The Playground Bully Becomes An Adult Workplace Bully

Last Updated: November 15 2013
Article by Linda Bond Edwards

The recent high-profile example of bullying in the workplace comes from the National Football League and the Miami Dolphins. Reports recently surfaced that Richie Incognito harassed and bullied his teammate, Jonathan Martin, a fellow offensive lineman. The alleged bullying included voicemails and text messages with numerous racial epithets, profanities, threats of violence, and derogatory terms referencing sexual orientation. Incognito was a member of the team's leadership council and has been suspended. Martin has temporarily left the team after teammates pulled a prank in the team cafeteria, and he has accused the franchise of having an unsafe work environment. It is not clear what role management, the coaching staff, or the rest of the team played in the harassment, but there is a report that members of the coaching staff encouraged Incognito to "toughen up" Martin. While it is highly unlikely that this behavior was unnoticed, many employees treat workplace bullying like the children's character "Not Me." It may be happening somewhere, but not here.

The heavy media coverage and attention given to the bullying in the Miami Dolphins' locker room brings to light an issue that is far too common in the workplace. Research commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and conducted by Zogby International brings to light the prevalence of bullying in today's workplaces, reporting that "35 percent of the US workforce (an estimated 53.5 million Americans) report being bullied at work; an additional 15 percent witness it. Half of all Americans have directly experienced it." Bullies share common characteristics and are typically subservient to individuals higher in the organization while bullying peers and people who report to them. Males are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than women, but females have also bullied co-workers, typically towards other women. The situation is exacerbated when high-profile bullies find success and fame. Forbes.com posted a "Bully Bosses of Fame" that included Steve Jobs of Apple and Vogue Editor in Chief, Anna Wintour, the inspiration for the best-selling novel and hit movie "The Devil Wears Prada." The success of bullies only serves to breed more bullies as younger workers emulate the style of those in authority.

A workplace becomes a "hostile work environment" when an employee experiences insulting, intimidating conduct because of the employee's gender, race, national origin, disability, religion, or other protected class status. See e.g., Smith v. Lockheed Martin, 644 F.3d 1321 (11th Cir., 2011). Disruptive workplace behavior such as bullying may not rise to the level of a "hostile working environment," and may not even be legally actionable. However, employers should not overlook this behavior and the disruptions it can cause to a work environment.

While related to harassment, discrimination, and stalking, bullying differs in that it is not typically focused on race, gender, or disability. There is not a clear definition of a "workplace bully," but it has been referenced in court opinions. In Yancick v. Hanna Steel Corporation (7th Cir., Aug. 3, 2011), the court declined to accept bullyingas harassment but specifically used the term in the opinion.The court described the "workplace bully" as "confrontational,rude and disruptive in the workplace." Bullying behaviors include all of the following:      

  • Being rude and disrespectful;
  • Resorting to name-calling and yelling;
  • Making insulting remarks or giving people the silent treatment;
  • Issuing threats of a job loss or assigning unreasonable tasks;
  • Constantly highlighting employees' mistakes and criticizing their work;
  • Ignoring or excluding employees and spreading rumors;
  • Engaging in verbal or physical aggression and arguments;
  • Commenting or making jokes about a person's appearance, lifestyle or background;
  • Engaging in social isolation or retaliation; and
  • Tampering with personal effects or work materials.

The Miami Dolphins' case appears to involve many of the above behaviors and examples, including the name-calling, insulting remarks, aggression, and comments about a person's background. Of particular note, Martin comes from a mixed racial background and both of his parents attended Harvard, somewhat atypical of most professional football players. Reports also indicate that Martin was nicknamed "the Big Weirdo" by his teammates and was coerced to help fund a trip to Las Vegas for some of his teammates that he did not attend.

Much of the reporting in the Miami Dolphins case is now focused on what the coaching staff knew, and whether Martin reported any of the bullying to the coaches or to management. The team released a statement that Martin had not reported any concerns to the team regarding bullying until after he left the team. Part of the problem is that most bullies do not exhibit the aggressive behavior in front of their superiors. In order to identify bullying behavior in the workplace, management should pay attention to reports from other employees. Signs of bullying include an individual frequently taking credit for shared accomplishments and ignoring a person's requests to be included in meetings. High turnover rates within a department can also be a sign of bullying. Management can take extra steps to identify problems by conducting 360-degree performance reviews that include reviews from subordinates, peers, and supervisors. They can also conduct exit interviews with employees to find out how individuals were treated by co-workers.

Bullying can also be an issue of perspective and point-of-view. Several Miami players have come out in support of Incognito, saying that he did not treat Martin differently than other players and that Martin was never singled out as a target. The difficulty lies in that Martin perceived the actions as bullying, and he was negatively affected by Incognito's actions. If the bullying negatively affects an employee, intent no longer matters, and management must concern itself with the consequences of the bullying.

Workplace bullying takes a serious toll on the victims of the behavior and the business as a whole. Victims frequently suffer from mental health problems such as stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and physical health problems such as reduced immunity to infection, skin irritations, high blood pressure, headaches, and migraines. Businesses face higher turnover, lost work time, lower efforts, and lower commitment to the organization. A business can also suffer great harm to its reputation as word gets around about the workplace environment. The consequences can even grow into a lawsuit against the business. While there are no laws explicitly governing workplace bullying, it can be seen as a form of violence against employees if it includes threats. Victims who are members of a protected class could easily use the bullying in a discrimination claim.

The NFL has come under fire recently for its lack of an anti-hazing policy, especially when compared to the U.S. Marines, another organization with a reputation for "toughness," who instituted an anti-hazing policy in 1997. All employers can take steps to prevent bullying in the workplace by developing firm policies and educating employees. Perhaps even more importantly, a positive workplace environment should start at the highest level, with management showing respect and creating an encouraging, supportive atmosphere. The education process should include training provided to all employees. Employees should be aware that aggressive behavior is not acceptable. Employees should also be able to report incidents without fear of retribution.

Employers should attempt to recognize and address bullying behavior immediately, beginning with the hiring process and watching a candidate interact with all of the staff. When bullying behavior is recognized or reported in the workplace, the offender must be pulled aside and informed that the behavior is unacceptable. Employers must communicate the specifics of how and why the behavior is unacceptable and that it must cease. Employers need a disciplinary policy that it should apply consistently to all cases. Employers should also document the behaviors and warnings, along with the employee's responses to all discussions. Employers should take proactive measures while it still has the chance to manage the matter, before the behavior grows beyond their control and into a lawsuit.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Linda Bond Edwards
In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions