Maureen Duffy, Ph.D. and Len Sperry, M.D., Ph.D.

Maureen Duffy Ph.D.

Overcoming Workplace Abuse

When Organizations Respond to Workplace Bullying

The NFL did much that was right in responding to the Jonathan Martin case.

Posted Mar 28, 2014

Organizational leadership, when confronted with allegations of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, generally responds in one of the following ways:  
  • by ignoring and discounting the allegations,

  • by responding partially and defensively while blaming the target-victim,

  • by seeking to find out what happened through a fair and thorough investigation, by protecting alleged target-victims, and by improving the workplace culture (this is the road less travelled option for most organizations).

How the National Football League (NFL) responded to Jonathan Martin’s claims of bullying and abuse while at the Miami Dolphins, and how the subsequent investigation proceeded, provide some useful takeaways for what organizations can do right when faced with claims of workplace abuse.  Coming soon--thinking about the organizational culture that was the incubator for the abuse in the first place.

Jonathan Martin’s allegations of harassment and bullying at the Miami Dolphins put workplace abuse and bullying at the top of the news cycle for many weeks. The NFL commissioned an independent investigation of Martin’s allegations and workplace conduct within the Miami Dolphins organization and committed to making the report public. The findings from this investigation were published on February 14th, 2014 in what is known as the Wells Report.

The focus of the Wells Report was Jonathan Martin’s claims that he was the target of abuse and bullying and overall workplace behavior at the Miami Dolphins. The report concluded, without a hint of equivocation, that Jonathan Martin was indeed the target of harassment and other offensive behavior directed toward him by a group of other players. The investigation also found that another player and an assistant trainer were likewise subjected to similar abuse by the same group.

Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse are not trivial matters. Physical and psychological health injuries are common in their aftermath as are an array of personal, professional, financial, and relationship losses. Target-victims of workplace abuse need all the support and help they can get to cope and move forward in their lives. How organizational leadership responds when confronted with allegations of workplace abuse has a huge influence on the ultimate well-being of target-victims. When faced with claims of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse organizations need to know how to respond effectively and do the right thing.

In the Jonathan Martin case, the public watched closely to see what would happen next and how the Miami Dolphins and the NFL would respond to his allegations of bullying and abuse. Football is big business and a lot of people are interested in it. It seemed like everyone had an opinion about what the NFL should do. The NFL didn’t waste any time in responding. From the NFL’s response and the subsequent Wells’ investigation, there is much that can be learned and much that was done right.

 What did the NFL do right?

  • Took the claims of workplace abuse seriously.  As an organization, the NFL took seriously the claims by Jonathan Martin that he had been abused and bullied by his teammates.  It didn’t ignore, minimize, or dismiss the claims. It acted on them in spite of pressure from both within and outside the NFL to disregard his allegations. The pressure to ignore Martin’s claims came from the erroneous belief that a 300 lb. professional football player making a lot of money and holding a degree from Stanford University could not possibly be the victim of bullying and workplace abuse because he could stand up for himself.

  • Initiated an independent investigation. The NFL commissioned an independent investigation led by professionals skilled in conducting such inquiries. It assigned to the independent investigators, not to NFL insiders, the task of determining the facts of what happened. By their nature, workplace investigations are difficult. Establishing that a particular set of events happened is likely to be a lot easier than establishing the meaning of those events. Inevitably there are going to be multiple perspectives about the context of events and people’s intentions and motivations. (More about workplace bullying and abuse investigations in another blog—there is much more that needs to be said about them).

  • Acted in a timely manner. The NFL acted in a timely manner although it probably didn’t seem that way to Jonathan Martin who had been suffering abuse for many months.  Martin left the Miami Dolphin’s training camp on October 28th, 2013.  Ted Wells was retained by the NFL to begin the investigation on November 6th, 2013.  Workplace investigations are stressful for everyone involved and there has to be a balance between timeliness and thoroughness. 

What did the Wells’ investigation team do right?

  • Gathered extensive data and information. The investigation team conducted interviews with over 100 people including all the players on the Dolphin’s roster and the coaching staff. They reviewed emails, voicemails, text messages, relevant notebooks like the infamous “Fine Book,” Dolphins’ and NFL policies and procedures, scholarly literature about workplace abuse, and other materials. Conducting and analyzing that many interviews and reviewing such a large volume of textual material is a painstaking process that clearly increased the trustworthiness of the investigation team’s findings.

  • Did not discount Martin’s allegations of workplace abuse because of his previous history of depression and being bullied in school. In certain types of workplace abuse, particularly mobbing, target-victims are discredited by being labeled “mentally ill” or “disturbed.” Previous histories of psychological problems or treatment are often used to justify such disqualification. The Wells’ team, while candidly admitting to struggling with how to evaluate some of Martin’s claims of abuse given his mental health issues, made the right call. They provided ample evidence to support a finding of a pattern of abusive behavior directed toward Jonathan Martin. For us in the mental health field, it can be frustrating that a higher bar is likely to be set for those with histories of mental health problems who are in the unfortunate position of also having to demonstrate that they are target-victims of workplace abuse.  As for Jonathan Martin’s increased sensitivity to insulting behavior as a result of a prior history of being bullied in school, the Wells’ team got it right when they said “that the same taunts might have bounced off a different person is beside the point.” Those with histories of past interpersonal abuse and trauma—including histories of school and/or workplace bullying—are more likely to have stronger reactions to new trauma and abuse. It’s not personal weakness—it’s how trauma and abuse get inscribed in the brain and physiology of a victim and then get reactivated in the face of new abuse.

  • Displayed transparency about their procedures, thinking, and decision-making. The final report from the investigation team is decidedly transparent with respect both to the findings and the process for reaching them. Information and data that the team struggled to make sense of are identified. If you don’t agree with their conclusions, the transparency of the report at least lets you see how they reached them. For better or for worse, this report is likely to affect the lives and careers of at least some of the people described in it.  That it is a transparent report makes it a lot safer and more trustworthy for all concerned.

Organizational leadership is critical to stopping workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. In the case of the workplace abuse of Jonathan Martin, the NFL’s response and the conduct of the investigation by Ted Wells and his team offer a number of best practices for responding to allegations of workplace abuse that can be followed by other organizations.

About the Author

Maureen Duffy, Ph.D. and Len Sperry, M.D., Ph.D.

Maureen Duffy, Ph.D. is a practicing family therapist. Len Sperry, M.D., Ph.D. is Professor of Mental Health Counseling at Florida Atlantic University.

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