Workplace Bullying Can Happen Anywhere

Jonathan Martin is 6-foot-5 and weighs 315 pounds. He attended California’s prestigious Stanford University on an athletic scholarship.

He was uniquely praised for his aggressiveness and toughness. These skills allowed him to enter a specialized workforce, where he was rewarded with a seven-figure annual salary.

He was driven to despair by workplace bullying, taunting and constant insults.

Martin’s workplace is a National Football League field. The bullying came from one of his co-workers, literally the guy he worked next to all day. The notoriety that resulted from his decision to leave the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the season serves as a timely reminder that workplace bullying can affect anyone.

Martin left the team because the bullying and harassment, primarily from his co-worker, led to mental health issues. He said he considered suicide. The story – and the resulting discussion – highlighted the need for enforcement of bullying rules in all workplaces.

The National Football League hired a law firm to investigate and report on issues of workplace conduct. That report concluded that the evidence was consistent with a case of workplace bullying and that the bullying and harassment, sometimes racial, sometimes about sexual orientation, led to mental health issues. It also noted that the complaints were kept under wraps at the lower levels, so that senior managers were not aware of the issues.

The report concluded by encouraging “the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.”

League officials have vowed to act, but also note the difficulties in regulating a locker room where one person’s harmless goading may be perceived as a threat by another who has different levels of sensitivity.

The location may be unique, and the case certainly has a high profile, but this is fundamentally the same issue that all employers face. How do you police every corner of the workplace? What do you do when a comment intended as playful banter is received as much more menacing? How do you ensure that lower managers don’t dismiss situations that should be escalated?

Ontario implemented new regulations on workplace harassment and violence in 2010. That legislation defined workplace harassment as “engaging in a course of vexations comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably known to be unwelcome.” That language is more broad than the definition in the Human Rights Code because it is not confined to harassment on certain prohibited grounds.

The ‘new’ laws cover the exercise or attempt to exercise physical force “by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to a worker.” They now include “a statement or behaviour that it is reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to exercise physical force.” The laws also allow employees to remove themselves from harmful situations if they have reasons to believe they are at risk of imminent danger due to workplace violence.

Ontario employers must have compliant policies, programs to implement policies as well as worker training, notification and program audits.

Contact us if you are interested in specialized instruction in workplace violence and harassment laws. Remember, workplace bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere.