For years, Michael Scott, the inept manager of a regional paper company office, described his underlings in the TV series, The Office, as his family. But the reality is that most workplaces are not family-oriented and some can be toxic environments as a result of harassment, discrimination and incivility. Many workers believe the law protects them from any sort of harassment, discrimination or misconduct directed at them. But they are mistaken.
The law, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans With Disabilities Act and various state and federal anti-discrimination laws, confers only limited protection upon employees. To be actionable, any workplace discrimination or misconduct must be based on race, religion, gender, disability, age or another legally protected status. It is simply insufficient for one to assert that he or she has been harassed by a superior “who just doesn’t like me” or who “seems to hate everyone.”
The assumption in limiting one’s rights to sue an employer for tolerating or promoting bad behavior is that the law cannot regulate civility at work. But the case of Jonathan Martin, the Miami Dolphins football player who left the team due to harassment from a teammate, may serve to spark a national conversation on whether poor conduct in the workplace is a purely private matter or one that should be regulated.
A brief example to put the issue in perspective: If a male supervisor regularly harasses a female employee by utilizing sexually-charged insults, he has created a “hostile work environment” that the company must prevent. If the company fails to act, it may be liable. Yet, if the same male supervisor regularly harasses a male (or female) employee by using boorish terms (e.g., incompetent, stupid, moron) or by giving them unpleasant or unnecessary tasks, then the law often deems the conduct as uncivil, but falling short of a “hostile work environment.”
Martin has claimed that a teammate, Rich Incognito, made racial slurs, threatened Martin, and intimidated him. The Dolphins suspended Incognito, pending investigation, but several NFL players have stated publicly that the media and the fans simply don’t understand the culture of the lockerroom. It has been said that if you are a rookie in pro football, you have to understand that you are going to be hazed. It’s nothing personal, it’s just a matter of tradition.
The allegation of racial slurs put the Dolphins on notice that if they didn’t take appropriate action, and if the misconduct continued, the team might be liable to Martin for fostering a hostile work environment. But, putting aside the racial allegations, the matter raises issues as to how much incivility an employer should be permitted to tolerate, or turn a blind eye towards, in any workplace.
A national discussion on this issue might not result in ground-breaking laws to protect workers, but it might serve to slow down the erosion of employee rights that seems to be taking place in some states.