Emulating locker-room behaviour (Editor's Notes)

Professional sports teams the last bastion for workplace bullying?
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/16/2014

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 players, but couldn’t reach a consensus to ban it. Richard Sherman, an African-American player on the Seattle Seahawks, called banning 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 hears it every game and talk of banning it is racist itself. Why not go after all swear words, he said.

It’s impossible to imagine that same conversation occurring in the HR department at RBC — 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.

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 teams 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, which caused more of an 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 is responding to these antics and trying to change a culture that lets behaviour like this propagate. As training camps open for the 2014 season. Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s executive vice-president and CHRO, is launching an initiative.

“This is not a Band-Aid (from head office),” he said, according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated and TheMMQB.com. “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.

The NFL is training recently retired players — called “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.”

In the “real world,” there are still far too many incidents of bullying, sexual harassment, racism and discrimination. But we have firm rules against them and most organizations take swift action when confronted with egregious behaviour by employees.

Professional sports teams may be late jumping on this bandwagon but they’re 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, we actually call it “locker room behaviour” — then perhaps it will help instil more change in real-world workplaces too.

Reader Comments

What seems to bring the multi-generational workforce together nowadays is the necessity for a job that provides personal freedom and development. We seem to crave a workplace whose priorities include our well-being. Call it spoiled, lazy or whiny but the reality is generations X and Y have seen far too many examples of people replacing living for working — and baby boomers have experienced it themselves for way too long.

— Vera Gavizon, commenting on Claudine Kapel’s blog “Are you ready for a 4-generation workplace?”

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