BFV Perspectives, Corporate Matters, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Nov 12, 2013

The Miami Dolphin Fiasco: A Playbook of Poor Leadership

The NFL has found itself embroiled in a public relations nightmare with reports of player harassment emanating from the Miami Dolphins locker room. Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin recently departed from the team voluntarily, unable to cope with an alleged a pattern of harassing behavior directed at him by a teammate, Richie Incognito.  Recently-released voicemails and text messages illustrate threats and racial slurs directed by Incognito at Martin.  Miami Dolphins management has attempted to distance itself from this controversy by releasing Incognito.

Recent reports suggest, however, that Dolphins management may have had a role in the harassment.  During pre-season training, Martin skipped some voluntary team exercises.  Though the exercises were not mandatory, NFL culture weighs strongly in favor of attendance.  Apparently displeased with Martin’s absence, Dolphins management is reported to have asked Incognito to “toughen up” Martin.

Though facts are still emerging in this case and the entire history is not yet known, this scenario, if true, provides a number of useful take-away points for managing employees and avoiding controversy.

  1. Management makes itself vulnerable when it delegates management responsibility to an employee.  If management wanted to convey to Martin that he should have been present for voluntary exercises, it would have been more prudent for a member of the coaching staff to meet with Martin directly.  Instead, according to reports, team officials delegated this responsibility to an employee, who then went to extremes in carrying out this direction.
  2. If a management function must be delegated to an employee, extra care must be taken to choose the right employee.  Incognito had repeated behavioral issues, both on the field and off, long before this recent controversy.  Dolphins’ management should have been aware of this fact and should have foreseen the risk that Incognito might go too far if given a task of this kind.  This underscores the importance, when delegating, of matching the task with the employee.
  3. Where a management function is delegated to an employee, management must oversee how the employee carries out this direction.  Especially given Incognito’s past transgressions, Dolphins management should have been monitoring how Incognito chose to carry out the task of toughening up Martin to ensure that something like this did not happen. Failure to monitor the situation could lead to claims of negligent supervision.
  4. Do not tolerate racial slurs or bullying- ever.   Reports have revealed that Martin received numerous voicemail and texts that included racially offensive comments and derogatory comments about sexual orientation.  To the extent the Dolphins knew about these comments, it should have intervened and stopped such types of communication.  Employers never prosper from creating a work environment that tolerates joking about race, sexual orientation, or other sensitive and legally protected characteristics.
  5. Act like a professional to avoid being caught in a public relations firestorm.  Incognito insists that there was nothing racist about his comments.  In an interview with Jay Glazer, Incognito said he had a close relationship with Martin and “had his back.”  Incognito claims that he simply took things too far and did not know he was hurting Martin.   Giving Incognito the benefit of the doubt, we see an important takeaway – be careful what you say because you never know what may offend someone.  Each of us comes to work with our own life experiences and sensitivities.  To protect your professional reputation, it is always prudent to act professional, err on the side of caution, and avoid making comments that could be viewed by others as hostile and offensive.

By reportedly giving a sensitive task to an employee with a checkered history, and by then apparently providing no oversight while the employee carried out this task, Dolphins management may have opened themselves up to liability.  Such an outcome may be easily avoided where management delegates sparingly and carefully.  As for Incognito, he could have avoided this mess by being more thoughtful about his words and acting like a professional.  There is room for joking and fun in the workplace, including a locker room, but only trouble will come from comments about race, sexual orientation, and legally protectable characteristics.

BFV Perspectives, Corporate Matters, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Nov 12, 2013
Kenneth N. Winkler
Kenneth N. Winkler

Kenneth Winklera shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.