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Miami Dolphins Workplace Bullying Scandal: The Challenges of High-Profile Investigations

An internal investigations specialist says the study was disadvantaged from the outset

Posted by Jake Edmiston on February 27th, 2014

In the wake of an explosive report on bullying in the Miami Dolphin’s locker room, onlookers in the HR sector have been quick to applaud the NFL for using an external investigator to conduct the internal workplace investigation.

The surprisingly blunt report, released to the public earlier this month, revealed explicit details behind a high-profile workplace bullying scandal that saw a young offensive lineman admitted to hospital for mental health issues.

Union Rep Says Investigation Was Under Pressure

But this week, the team’s union rep slammed the report, claiming the law firm tasked with investigating the incident was under pressure to “come up with something.” After lineman Jonathan Martin left the team last fall, the league hired Attorney Ted Wells to look into the incident amid a media frenzy over allegations of an often homophobic and racially-charged locker room culture.

“I think all of us can agree [Wells] is not going to walk out of there and address the table and go, ‘I got nothing, guys. Sorry,'” Dolphins union rep John Denney told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this week.

“They’re paying [Wells] good money to find something. Obviously the problem has risen to the top, it needed to be addressed, and he’s getting paid to address it, so that’s what he’s doing.

“This whole thing nauseates me.”

Interview Subjects Knew Report Would Be Released to Public

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Days after the sophomore lineman stormed out of the team cafeteria in response to a prank, the alleged bullying in the locker room had garnered national media attention. On Nov. 3, 2013, the Dolphins released a total of three press releases. In the morning, the team claimed reports of bullying were merely “speculation,” but hours later Dolphins management had condemned the behavior and announced that the alleged bully, Richie Incognito, had been suspended.

Within 72 hours, the NFL had moved to hire Wells and his firm – Paul, Weiss, Rifikind, Wharton & Garrison LLP – to conduct an independent corporate investigation “into issues of workplace conduct at the Miami Dolphins,” read a NFL press release, which also promised to release Wells’ findings to the public.

While many congratulated the league for opting to use an impartial investigator from outside the organization, an internal investigations specialist says the NFL-commissioned study into the workplace bullying scandal may have been disadvantaged from the outset.

Independent Investigator May Have Been Disadvantaged, Specialist Says

Attorney and independent investigator James McGrath said the NFL decision appeared to be motivated by public relations concerns, which could have significantly compromised the hundreds of interviews conducted within the Dolphins organization.

“I think that even the dimmest bulb on the tree can see the NFL has a great interest in preserving its image,” said McGrath, a former college football player and managing partner at McGrath & Grace Ltd.

Investigations Driven By PR Concerns Can Be “Problematic”

In crisis situations, McGrath said, the general impulse is to make it “look like we’re on top of this” – but the company’s apparent desperation can put implicit pressure on employees involved in the investigation.

“I think everybody involved knew they were part of a big show,” he said. But McGrath said it was misguided to put blame on Wells – a well-respected attorney whose reputation was “on the line” with the report. Acknowledging that the report would be made public – before the investigation began – could have placed undue pressure on respondents, he said.

“[Wells] wasn’t given the best situation to start with,” McGrath said.

While the Wells report stated it had the full cooperation of the NFL and the Dolphins, the investigator wrote that at least one witness could not be “forthright because he was concerned about losing the trust of the players.”

According to McGrath, a joint approach from the team, the league and the players union could have helped investigators compel more cooperation, especially if management refrained from making conclusions to the media before the investigation began.

Jake Edmiston
Jake Edmiston

Corporate Journalist

Jake Edmiston is a former Corporate Journalist at i-Sight who now writes for the Financial post.

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