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Corporate America full of locker room bullies

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It's easy to get bullied at work. Speaking up is another story.

Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin has shown us that bullying can happen to adults in the workplace, and refusing to tolerate those working conditions takes courage.

The question is what it will take for professional sports and corporate America to address bullying in the workplace before it makes headlines.

Martin, 24, abruptly left the Dolphins as a result of a recent incident in the team cafeteria and filed a formal grievance of player misconduct against teammate Richie Incognito. The Dolphins and the NFL Players Association since have been informed that Incognito did more than goad a young player. He sent him text messages and left him voice mails that were threatening and racially charged.

As the world of sports debates whether Incognito's alleged bullying of Martin was part of a hazing culture that leadership ignored, what has become clear is that abuse in the workplace is getting attention. So far, the Dolphins' response to the allegations that they fostered an unhealthy work environment is “we take this seriously.”

Yet if management were serious, how did Incognito's behavior happen in the first place? It is the same question employees in companies across the country have asked at their own job sites.

Hostility in the workplace is large enough of a problem that 36 percent of workers say they have encountered it — that's at least one in three. Some experts have called workplace bullying an epidemic that has been exacerbated by a recession that created job insecurity.

“Much of it goes undetected because people live in fear of keeping their jobs,” said Paul Spiegelman, a workplace culture expert. “It's really an indictment of leaders who turn a blind eye or don't have enough of an early warning system to know what's going on in their businesses.”

Typically, the workplace bully is someone who has higher status. The bad behavior often includes insulting another employee or humiliating him or her in front of others, undermining another person's work or consistently drawing attention to a co-worker's flaws.

Being the victim can affect someone's physical and mental health. There is some evidence that employees who are bullied tend to take more sick days because of stress. In Martin's case, he is on leave from the team to seek help for emotional issues.

But in most workplaces, speaking up — particularly against a high performer or boss — typically doesn't go well. A 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute survey shows that 53 percent of employers did nothing when employees reported a workplace bullying incident. In 24 percent of cases, it was even worse: The person who complained got fired.

Surely Martin is experiencing some backlash, too. As Miami Herald sports columnist Greg Cote points out, “Martin, unfortunately and unfairly, gets stigmatized now as soft or weak or a snitch, all things tough to overcome for a professional athlete, and all because he'd had enough and wouldn't play along with the curdled culture of the locker room.”

One of the biggest challenges in getting management to take action is that bullying is hard to define, explained Kelly Kolb, a labor lawyer with Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “There are laws against sexual harassment or discrimination, but there is nothing that requires people to treat each other nicely.”

Workplace bullying is not illegal in any state. Although 23 states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, none have succeeded. Eleven states have anti-bullying laws pending. Kolb says even the anti-bullying law would be difficult to enforce: “It's a civility code, and I don't know how you would enforce it.”

The Dolphins incident highlights the sometimes-ignored fact that bullying in the workplace isn't just a moral problem but a managerial and economic one.

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