Rutgers Scandal Shows Employers Must Not Drop the Ball

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The recent firing of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice, but only after a video surfaced of him physically hitting players and hurling repeated homophobic epithets at them, is a virtual primer of what NOT to do from an employment law perspective. Among other things, the university’s lack of transparency in handling the incident and its alleged treatment of the former employee who blew the whistle also especially stand out.

In a series of posts this week, the XpertHR team will share lessons to learn from the scandal while also examining where the university fell short. We begin with the coach’s bullying behavior.

Supervisor Bullying

The Rutgers scandal highlights the detrimental and domino effect bullying can have if employers fail to address incidents in a timely and effective manner. 

As revealed on videotape, Coach Rice engaged in inappropriate and abusive behavior which included physically assaulting players by pushing, kicking and throwing basketballs at their heads. He also verbally abused them with a series of gay slurs and other vile language. With the story continuing to unfold, Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti has been forced to resign and the university’s General Counsel John Wolf was removed from his leadership position and recently resigned as well after reportedly recommending last fall that Rutgers suspend rather than fire Rice even after viewing the video.

This course of events demonstrates that employers must continually take steps to address workplace bullying in order to minimize employer liability and protect employees and co-workers. Like in the Rutgers case, bullying and harassment presents a wide variety of risks to employers and can result in potential lawsuits for negligent hiring, retention and/or supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault. And the university’s athletic director was aware when hiring Rice that he had a volatile history.  

While there is no “general civility code for the workplace,” bullying behavior is different because it is repetitive, intentional and continuing over time. Further, there is usually a disparity in power between the bully and his or her victim. This was especially true with a highly-paid basketball coach striking college players.  

Although there is no state or federal law that specifically addresses workplace bullying and aims to prevent an abusive workplace, a number of legislative measures have been introduced on the state level to ban such behavior. At this time, employers must do their part and take an active role to prevent and curb such behavior by doing the following:

Check back tomorrow for the second post in the Rutgers scandal series and more lessons for employers.

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