In the NFL or in the office, workplace bullying is tough to find and stop
The Miami Dolphins suspended guard Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team. (Doug Benz/ Reuters photo / November 15, 2012)
But it takes something out of the ordinary the spotlight of professional sports or a noisy lawsuit for bullying among adults to get the same sort of attention paid to kids' harassment at school.
Incognito, known for questionable behavior even in his violent sport, was suspended Sunday for allegedly being the ringleader in the systematic bullying of Martin. Martin left the team last week in the face of the harassment, and the National Football League is investigating.
Workplace consultant Leigh Branham of Overland Park, Kan., understands why Martin left but worries that the bullying took too long to be recognized and controlled by the Dolphins.
"The incident just reminded me that it's the tip of the iceberg that goes on in the workplace every day," said Branham, an author and managing principal at Keeping the People.
Though Martin was able to leave the team, leaving a more typical workplace often is not an option for people who need their paychecks. And bullies often aren't stopped.
Although bullying among the young gets widespread attention, the details of repeated and incessant harassment among adults at work often don't emerge outside of legal proceedings.
But workplaces are petri dishes to grow an imbalance of power that leads to psychological and sometimes physical damage. Such grown-up bullying as childish as sandbox behavior occurs when co-workers haze newbies and when bosses single out employees.
Branham, like other management consultants, finds that there are "really insecure types that have to have power, and they don't know any way to get it except through bully behavior."
Some bullies are truly racist or sexist, but not all. Some simply don't know how to exert authority or act in a group.
Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, has a no-holds-barred assessment of what bullying is and the damage it causes.
It's a "systematic, laser-focused campaign of interpersonal destruction," Namie says a "unilaterally declared war" by the bully against the victim.
Whether sparked by jealousy, inferiority or a misguided attempt to elevate oneself in others' eyes, the bully often carries on unimpeded because others fear to get involved. That's especially true when the bully outranks the victim, as in a workplace, where a boss targets an employee and co-workers keep quiet to protect their jobs.
It's also true in organizations where people keep quiet for the sake of camaraderie or tradition.
In the Miami Dolphins case, Incognito was a 30-year-old veteran and Martin a second-year player.
In the workplace, bullying can take racially tinged forms, such as hanging a noose in the break room. It can be sexually aggressive, such as a boss saying what he'd like to do to a female employee after hours. It can be passive-aggressive, such as failing to invite a co-worker to a key meeting or pouncing on a comment to belittle it.
Branham said he finds workplaces where the attitude is that the new guy needs to be taught how to behave or toe the line for a while. It usually passes. When it doesn't, or when a particular worker is singled out for abuse, that's when long-lasting problems occur.
SuEllen Fried of Kansas City, who formed BullySafeUSA and has earned national acclaim for her anti-bullying efforts, takes care to point out that three people (or more) are usually involved in bullying: the bully, the target (a term she prefers to victim) and the witness.
Although some cyber-bullying and other closeted bullying may occur unknown to others, Fried teaches that "motivating witnesses to take action is key" to halting the harassment.