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Emulating locker-room behaviour

NFL takes a page from HR handbook as it tries to improve workplace culture

By Todd Humber

When it comes to workplaces that tolerate bullying and harassment, the locker room of a pro sports team may very well be ground zero.

Antics that have long been banned in the “real world” have continued unabated in the realm of professional athletes. Hazing, bullying and harassment are all de facto norms — even racist language can be a grey area that’s tough to stamp out. The National Football League (NFL) recently wrestled with the use of the N-word by its players, and it couldn’t reach a consensus to ban it. Richard Sherman, an African American player on the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, called it “an atrocious idea.”

That’s head scratching. But the gist of the argument is that for black players (and black players only) it’s akin to a term of endearment — similar to “bro” or “man.” Sherman said he doesn’t go a game without hearing it, and said talk of banning it was racist itself. Why not go after all swear words, he asked.

It’s impossible to imagine that same conversation occurring in the HR department at the Royal Bank — just picture the head of HR coming up with a list of derogatory terms and expletives that are OK for certain employees to utter in the right circumstances. It’s almost comical. Yet, in the world of pro sports, we shrug our shoulders and move on — despite the fact we all live in the same society and are governed by the same laws.

Athletes are people, too

With all the mounting evidence that workplace culture is such a differentiator, not to mention a breeding ground for liability and lawsuits, how can sports teams turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment? The short answer is they can’t — because the real world is creeping into locker rooms and athletes are people, too.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has its first openly gay player — Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets. The NFL is on the verge of having one — Michael Sam was drafted earlier this year by the St. Louis Rams shortly after coming out to the world.

When Sam said he was gay, some NFL general managers said they thought his draft stock would fall as a result — meaning they would take a pass on him because of his sexual orientation. When he was drafted, he did what many players do — he kissed his partner in celebration of what he has worked his whole life to accomplish, which caused more uproar.

Last year, the NFL was rocked by a bullying scandal that led to one player — Jonathan Martin — walking away from the Miami Dolphins after being harassed incessantly by teammate Richard Incognito, who was suspended for his boorish behaviour.

The NFL response

The NFL is responding to these antics and trying to change the culture that lets behaviour like this propagate. Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s executive vice-president and chief human resources officer, is launching an initiative as training camps open for the 2014 season.

“This is not a Band-Aid (from head office),” he said, according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated and “This is the chance to start a dialogue about what a more respectful locker-room culture is all about. While we have rules and policies on the books that talk about the workplace, what is also important is the culture that reinforces the rules and policies. We believe that a more respectful culture is part of a winning culture.”

Gulliver isn’t a sports guy. He came to the NFL after heading up HR for the wealth, brokerage and retirement business unit of Wells Fargo — and he knows changing culture isn’t easy for any organization, let alone a locker room.

Spreading the word

The NFL is training recently retired players — it calls them “ambassadors” — to fan out across the league to talk to players, owners, coaches and general managers to spread the word on culture. Former player Patrick Kerney probably said it best: “As players, we need to understand we’re all going to be out of there soon and into the real world. If we continue some of the behaviour of the past, we’re enclosing ourselves in the bubble even further,” he told King.

The “real world” outside pro sports is far from perfect. There are still far too many incidents of bullying, sexual harassment, racism and discrimination. But we have firm rules that say they won’t be tolerated, and most organizations take swift action when confronted with egregious behaviour by employees.

Professional sports team may be late jumping on this bandwagon, but they’re most welcome additions because of the spotlight they carry. If people see a culture change in locker rooms — a place where boorish tactics are so ingrained that we actually call it “locker room behaviour” — then perhaps it will help instil more change in real world workplaces too.

Imagine that — a day when a HR vice-president looks at a toxic culture and says, “We need to make this place more like a locker room.”

It could happen, if the NFL and other leagues succeed.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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