The NFL has fined the Washington Football Team (Washington) $10 million following a damning workplace investigation. With investigations of this nature normally being shrouded in confidentiality, the NFL’s detailed statement on the review gives the public a rare glimpse into the workings of this type of workplace investigation. The investigation findings highlights the risks to any organisation of turning a blind eye to complaints and allowing a workplace culture to become toxic.
After the Washington Post reported that 15 female employees had experienced sexual harassment at the club, Washington instructed an external investigator to conduct a third-party investigation into allegations about the club’s culture and incidents of bullying and harassment. Washington asked the NFL to oversee the investigation so that the results would be trusted by the public and the club’s employees. More than 150 of the club’s current and former employees were interviewed as part of the investigation.
Based on the investigator’s findings, the NFL Commissioner concluded that Washington’s workplace environment had been “highly unprofessional” for many years particularly for women, and that “bullying and intimidation frequently took place”. He noted that many employees and former employees described the culture as “one of fear” and that “numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace”.
He found that ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues which were compounded by inadequate HR practices, including the absence of an effective process for reporting and addressing complaints.
The investigator recommended the club take the following steps to improve its workplace culture, which all organisations could potentially reflect upon to see how they measure up:
- develop protocols for reporting harassment which allow victims to report anonymously and without fear of retaliation;
- introduce clear disciplinary processes and apply them consistently across the organisation;
- conduct regular anonymised workplace culture surveys;
- provide regular training on bullying, harassment, diversity and inclusion, and train managers on how to handle reports of harassment;
- increase the number of women and minorities throughout the organisation, particularly in leadership and supervisory positions that have decision-making authority;
- implement a clear organisational structure and lines of authority;
- empower the HR and Legal departments to investigate and address allegations of misconduct without interference;
- improve onboarding, performance management and exit interview procedures;
- take steps to protect the cheerleading team; and
- review employment policies on an annual basis.
As well as issuing a $10m fine, the NFL imposed new reporting obligations on Washington including that the team provides updates twice a year on their progress in implementing the recommendations and that they notify the NFL about any complaints about workplace issues such as bullying, discrimination or harassment.
Crucially, Washington’s owners accepted the findings and have committed to implementing all of the recommendations. The club will hope that the investigation represents a turning point for organisation which will allow them to address their failings, improve the workplace culture and rebuilt trust in the organisation.
The case serves as a reminder of how important it is for employers to taking complaints seriously and have appropriate HR procedures in place as this should help prevent the workplace culture from becoming toxic.
When concerns are raised, employers should act quickly to investigate and address the issues or they risk storing up problems for the future. Ignoring misconduct can deter employees from speaking up in the future and set a precedent that the behaviour is acceptable. Failing to identify and address misconduct can also increase an employer’s exposure to claims under UK employment law (such as sex discrimination or sex harassment claims), harm staff morale and damage the organisation reputationally.
“Bullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace."