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Hazing in the Workplace Can Get You Sued

By Betty Wang, JD | Last updated on

Hazing is not just for fraternities -- it can happen in the workplace too. And when it does, it can get business owners into big trouble.

Case in point: Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who was recently suspended over allegations of harassment. Incognito allegedly sent teammate Jonathan Martin "racially charged texts," among other actions that may have created a hostile work environment.

The NFL does not take lightly to acts like bullying and hazing, and business owners shouldn't either. In fact, hazing in the workplace can lead to legal consequences. Here are five ways that can happen:

  1. Assault. Hazing can involve actions and verbal comments that reach the point of being threatening or intimidating. When this happens, this could lead to an assault claim. Assault is typically present if the person being hazed actually fears imminent physical harm.
  2. Sexual harassment. If one's comments or actions in the workplace get a little too racy or involve any type of unwanted touching (whether intentional or unintentional), this could potentially be seen as sexual harassment at work -- even if it's between two workers of the same sex.
  3. Bullying. While bullying itself is not a crime, many different actions that fall under the category of "bullying" can lead to legal problems in the workplace. For example, bullying members of a protected class (such as women or the disabled) can often implicate state and local anti-discrimination laws.
  4. Intentional infliction of emotional distress. Intentional infliction of emotional distress generally requires extreme or outrageous conduct that intentionally (or recklessly) causes severe emotional distress and bodily harm. Hazing, especially if it's repetitive, can lead to such trauma (like a mental breakdown) for the person being hazed.
  5. Business owner's liability. Remember, it's not just the employees involved in the hazing who could be sued. You as the business owner could be held liable, too, for ignoring it, allowing it, or even encouraging it to happen. For example, in the Miami Dolphins case, a coach allegedly asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin, which then led to bullying, sources tell the Sun Sentinel.

Lastly, don't forget: As an employer, you'll also want to be careful when hiring in order to avoid the type of worker who likes to haze or take things too far. If you need help on this, be sure to consult an experienced employment lawyer near you.

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