In Bullying Case, Questions on N.F.L. Culture

This unfolding saga is forcing the National Football League to uncomfortably turn its gaze toward locker room culture and start defining the gray areas between good-natured pranks and hurtful bullying.

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Access the full story here.

Renee Cowan, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Renee Cowan (The University of Texas at San Antonio) suggests some key “Takeaways” on the story:

With this recent case, issues of workplace emotional abuse have gotten more airplay in the U.S. media.  Bullying behavior (i.e. insulting someone, verbal abuse, aggressive nonverbal communication, social isolation, etc.) is not new to workplaces, and has most likely been around since we first began organizing. What is new is our full-throated rejection of this kind of behavior and sensitivity to the severe repercussions for targeted employees, groups, and organizations.  The situation brought to light in the Miami Dolphins points to several important “Takeaways” for organizations, HR, and bullied employees.

  1. Understand (and make sure employees understand) what bullying is and how it is is defined. In the U.S, we continue to conflate workplace bullying with incivility in the workplace.  This was made glaringly clear by much of the reporting on the Miami Dolphins bullying issue, linking it to certain “rites of passage” into an NFL team. Bullying is not a couple of instances of one player calling another a name or playing a practical joke.  Although these could be perceived as bullying behaviors, a couple of these kinds of behaviors alone do not make a situation bullying. In contrast to incivility, bullying is repeated, persistent, often subtle abuse that accumulates over time to create a harassing, uncomfortable, and toxic work environment (Einarsen, Hoel and Notelaers, 2009).  This is an environment where the bullied target does not feel free, they cannot be who they are, do their work, and carry on with their expected duties. Bullying situations are extremely traumatic and destructive.  As my own work with HR Professionals demonstrates, a situation is bullying when it is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment (Cowan, 2012).  It is very important for HR Professionals and management to not conflate incivility with bullying, because the actions and remedies in these situations should be very different.  In addition, research has demonstrated management involvement in stopping employee abuse is vital (Cowan, 2012; Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012).
  2. Monitor the culture. Organizational culture is a very important factor in the acceptance and proliferation of bullying activities.  When bullying behaviors and situations are rewarded, celebrated, or even just not addressed, the organizational culture will suffer and can become toxic (Salin, 2003). In the NFL case, it might be that Miami Dolphins accused player, Incognito’s, alleged harassing and demeaning behaviors towards fellow player, Martin, were in a sense rewarded by other players, the coach, or they were just not addressed as inappropriate and harassing.  Not addressing these behaviors immediately and concretely can lead to a perception that this kind of repeated abusive behavior is okay and even desired by the organization.  It can also serve as a kind of motivation for the abuse, or enable it to continue (Cowan, 2014). Leaders are one of the most important influences on organizational culture, and it could be the coach’s acceptance or just plain ignoring of the bullying situations will be an issue in the NFL bullying case.  
  3. Have a clear, specific anti-bullying policy. First, a detailed policy sets both target and would-be bullies expectations on how these situations are viewed and dealt with by the organization. Second, a policy gives HR professionals and those tasked with dealing with bullying the power required to deal with situations involving “top producers” or those employees who may be “allowed” to bully (Cowan, 2011).  And third, transparent and proper execution of these policies is vital because trust is quickly eroded when bullying situations are not handled in a manner perceived to be fair (Harrington, Rayner, & Warren, 2012).  For a good example of an anti-bullying policy, see UNISON, a leading trade union representing public sector workers in the UK (UNISON, 2003).

Read more “Takeaways” from Renee and other scholars here.


Cowan, R. L. (2014) “**it rolls downhill” and other attributions for why adult bullying happens in organizations from the human resource professional’s perspective. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 14, 97-104. DOI: 10.1080/17459435.2013.835347.

Cowan, R. L. (2012). It’s complicated: defining workplace bullying from the human resource professionals’ perspective. Management Communication Quarterly, 26, 377-403. DOI: 10.1177/0893318912439474.

Cowan, R. L. (2011). “Yes, we have an anti-bullying policy, but…” HR professionals’ understandings and experiences with workplace bullying policy. Communication Studies, 62, 307-327. DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2011.553763.

Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., & Notelaers, G. (2009). Measuring exposure to bullying and harassment at work: Validity structure and psychometric properties of the Negative Acts Questionnaire-Revised. Work & Stress, 23, 24-44. DOI: 10.1080/02678370902815673.

Harrington, S., Rayner, C., & Warren, S. (2012). Too hot to handle? Trust and human resource practitioners’ implementation of anti-bullying policy. Human Resource Management Journal, 22, 392-408. DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.12004.

Lutgen-Sandvik, P. & Tracy, S. J. (2012). Answering five key questions about workplace bullying: How communication scholarship provides thought leadership for transforming abuse at work. Management Communication Quarterly, 20, 1-45. doi:10.1177/0893318911414400.

Salin, D. (2003). Ways of explaining workplace bullying: A review of enabling, motivating, and participating structure and processes in the work environment. Human Relations, 56, 1213-1232.

UNISON (2003). “Bullying at Work: Guidelines for UNISON branches, stewards, and safety representative” Available at  (accessed September 29, 2012).

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