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Posted by on Mar 13, 2014

Are You Leading in a Hostile Workplace?

HostileThe recent controversy over hostile workplaces in the National Football League (NFL) should have each franchise owner taking a hard look at his or her organization, and serves as a great leadership fishbowl from which the rest of us can learn.

For those not following the situation, rookie hazing has had tacit approval in the NFL since its inception. Earning the right to interact with teammates as a peer comes at a price in the NFL. Rookies are expected to entertain veteran players, run errands for them, and as we learned from the Miami Dolphins situation that is still in the news, subsidize (or outright pay for) trips, meals, etc. for them.

Rookies even often endure some forms of physical abuse. The prize is acceptance by the veterans – and the right to join in the “fun” the next year when the new crop of rookies join the team.

Owners and coaches have long turned a blind eye to this practice, and players haven’t talked about it much, until recently. In 2013, rookie Jonathan Martin changed that, by claiming the Miami Dolphins created a hostile work environment and walking off the team. This week, he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers – but that doesn’t address the underlying problem with the Dolphins, and potentially other franchise cultures.

To explain more, let’s go back: A hostile work environment is one in which, “The hostile behavior, actions, or communication must be severe [and] must seriously disrupt the employee’s work [or] an employee’s career progress … Additionally, the behavior, actions or communication must be discriminatory in nature.”

So how could the owners and coaches fall asleep at the switch and let this hostile workplace develop? A common defense is that “Boys will be boys,” and “We can’t watch what they do all the time,” but that abdicates responsibility and is becoming recognized as a cop-out. 

Teams have, in the past, failed to address these kinds of issues (illegal drug use, domestic or sexual violence, or other brushes with the law), preferring to handle them “in-house” without upsetting the applecart. As this issue plays out, the NFL culture is due for a reckoning, and the league response to this crisis will likely be transformative and difficult.

So here’s the question for you: as a leader in your organization, what would happen to you if you operated your organization under the same level of tacit approval for a hostile work environment that, until now, was acceptable in the NFL?

Without getting too far into the weeds about the legal definition, the question remains: Are you or your colleagues creating conditions where actions, communication, and behavior make doing a job very difficult? And if you think the answer to that question is, “No,” then the follow up question is, “Even if you are not creating that environment yourself, does that environment exist in the workplace in which you lead?”

If you can’t confidently comment either way, how can you find out?

Keep your eyes open to the dynamics of your organization. Ask around, and listen openly to what you hear.

  • Is HR receiving complaints that you may not be aware of?
  • Does the culture support widespread dissemination of content or communication, in person or electronically, that may be considered offensive?
  • Are you observing employees withdrawing from the rest of their colleagues?
  • Are people consistently the butt of jokes based on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation?
  • Are any of these behaviors discriminatory and pervasive?

If you answer, “Yes” to any of those questions, then the workplace may be deemed hostile, and if you are the leader, then you may be held responsible. Even if your work environment doesn’t meet the legal definition of hostile, does it encourage people to perform at their best levels?


  1. To me, this is a very important conversation. I’ve worked in a number of mining companies and witnessed hostile work situations in several of them. Usually the management was unaware that front line supervisors, usually people who were poorly selected and/or poorly trained, were acting in a “bullying” way towards their workers, achieving results through intimidation rather than respect. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of that due to my unwillingness to accept intimidation and I do not shy away from confrontation in those situations.
    I think it is very important for senior managers to ‘manage by walking around’ and getting to really know what’s going on in the workplace. Workers won’t normally communicate these kinds of things to senior managers until they see them behaving in a way that encourages the communication. Senior managers need to make the time to develop that trust in the workplace or risk cultivating a breeding ground for a negative and potentially unsafe working environment.

  2. For those of us that have been burned,sometimes more than once, by claims by employees of a variety of workplace issues, the question is more than what am I doing to foster a safe workplace. The issue has become more prevalent as employees realize that there is little or no loyalty from managment regarding employees. The idea of getting a lawyer involved in any workplace issue is becoming much more commonplace. Almost anything can be construed to be causing a “hostile” workplace. Employees who make any sort of comment about unsafe, or unpleasant or any degree of harassment should be taken seriously. Expecially in an organization that may be going thru any sort of downsizing. Word to the wise.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marc. The erosion of the loyalty link (in both directions) has made many work lives transactional … “If you do this work, I will reward you in that way,” and vice versa. I hear anecdotal evidence of an increase in “whistleblower” activity when issues are surfaced, but don’t know if that is true or we are just hearing more about it. It seems that the middle region, between “inaction” and “full-blown legal confrontation” has disappeared.

      I am hopeful that raising leaders’ awareness about their role in creating (and actively correcting) a hostile work environment will be a step in the right direction toward creating a productive environment where employees can give their best, without hindrance.

  3. Thanks, Larry, for your comment. I agree that intimidation is one way to get results, just not necessarily “sustainable” results. I have seen/heard of the same kind of hostile treatment in my oil and gas industry consulting, as well. In today’s work environment, people are less willing to put up with being bullied at work. As the economy improves, and people feel like they have better options than to participate in a demeaning workplace, I look for this mobility trend to continue.

    Leaders do need to create an environment in which all employees are supported and enabled to do their best. In the case of the Miami Dolphins, the hostile work environment was permitted to exist, and the results (whether measured by win/loss, or corporate culture) weren’t good. Martin’s trading to San Francisco confirms the unsustainability of Miami’s approach, as well. When leadership accepts responsibility to create a healthy, productive environment, and is willing to make positive changes to build and maintain that healthy, productive environment, I look for performance to improve — whether on the field, or in the office.

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