“See you tomorrow.” It seems like the most innocuous of workplace partings you could possibly offer. And yet those words led to a major dustup last month that had some calling for a manager to be fired.
After the New York Mets lost a heartbreaking game in the late innings to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the media grilled Mets manager Mickey Callaway over a controversial decision not to remove a struggling pitcher until it was too late.
A few minutes later, Callaway walked out of his office in street clothes to get ready to leave the visiting clubhouse. Newsday reporter Tim Healey was standing near the office and said, “See you tomorrow, Mickey.”
In response, Callaway said, “Don’t be a smart-ass,” along with some other choice words. The beleaguered manager’s job status had been in question, and he may have thought Healey was being sarcastic. But the reporter later insisted he meant nothing of the sort.
When Healey tried to explain, Callaway sought to have the team’s public relations staff remove him from the clubhouse. That attracted the attention of pitcher Jason Vargas, standing a few feet away, who thought Healey was staring at him. Vargas told Healey, “I’ll knock you out right here bro,” with a choice expletive thrown in for good measure.
We could keep going with this workplace train wreck, but you get the picture. The team’s ownership appeared to understand the gravity of it as well since Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon called the reporter personally that night to “apologize on behalf of the entire organization.”
Wilpon stressed that Healey should feel comfortable coming back to the team’s clubhouse to do his job without any concern. And in a statement, the team said, “We do not condone this type of behavior from any employee.”
It seemed logical that the Mets employees who created this mess, Callaway and Vargas, would apologize in short order. But instead, Callaway refused to directly apologize at a press conference the next day and instead called the incident “a misunderstanding.”
A few hours later, he called reporters back into his office and said he had received “some feedback” on his earlier statement and was sorry. That was more than Vargas offered as he did not apologize at all.
New York City employment attorney Jason Habinsky, of Haynes & Boone, didn’t think much of the way the Mets handled the situation and wasn’t impressed by the team’s statement. “Words are just words. It’s not enough to just give appropriate lip service,” said Habinsky. “You need to follow through with action if employees are not complying.”
While the Mets did reportedly dock both men $10,000 in pay, the penalty was slight in terms of baseball economics. To put it in perspective, Vargas earns $8.5 million so the penalty for him was the equivalent of $850 and no suspension for embarrassing his employer and attracting negative headlines for the organization that led the sports news across the country.
“It was clearly a slap on the wrist,” said Habinsky. “The Mets are sending a mixed message that may give other employees a license to cross the line.” He noted that in the traditional employment context, the employees’ actions may have been a fireable offense, but probably not in professional sports.
Workplace Bullying Behavior
When an employer is confronted by a workplace bullying incident, Habinsky asserted that it can be a work-environment killer if not handled properly. This is especially true with a public-facing employer where such incidents can affect a business’s bottom line. But all too often, apologies can fall flat which can lead to deeper ramifications.
“Even if something isn’t actionable, it can be very detrimental to your workplace,” Habinsky concluded. He added that when an incident occurs in which an employee threatens violence or workplace bullying occurs, the employer must act promptly and show that it does not tolerate the behavior.
One bad incident can be enough to create a hostile environment. And while a baseball team’s clubhouse may not be the typical workplace, it is critical for employers of any type to be proactive and have policies in place to prevent abusive behavior from occurring.