It’s a big day today. The U.S. plays Belgium in the World Cup this afternoon. We’ve already covered it twice from a workplace morale and absence perspective, so we thought it appropriate to revisit perhaps the most notorious incident of the World Cup so far: A Workplace Violence Incident. My colleague, Chris Engler, gives us this little morsel to chew on:
By now, many readers are more than familiar with Luis Suarez’s infamous biting incident in the World Cup. His subsequent four-month suspension is probably old news too.
However, the story keeps ripening, with Suarez claiming over the weekend that he “fell” into the other player and then on Monday issuing a public apology to the player who “suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me.” (Editor’s Note: Yes, this is a pretty weak apology.)
Don’t worry – I’m not going to regurgitate the whole ordeal.
Instead, being a loyal reader of this blog, I was struck by the employment law implications of the story. As it turns out, several helpful lessons can be extracted from Suarez’s conduct and
football soccer organizations’ reactions.
At the outset, it’s important to remember that Suarez is a professional athlete, and the
pitch field is therefore his workplace.
Before we go any further, we should dispel the notion that only professional athletes (Mike Tyson is another) use their teeth to settle workplace disputes.
Take, for example:
- This Tennessee man who last September repeatedly bit a coworker during a disagreement over use of the break room couch.
- Or this Florida woman who bit off her coworker’s finger outside the store where they worked.
- Or, closer to home, this Connecticut police instructor who took his coworker’s gibe to “bite me” a tad too literally.
(Alas, I couldn’t find a single published court decision involving an employee challenging discipline for workplace biting. Perhaps the biters are eventually convinced to hold their tongues.)
However, the lessons from the Suarez saga aren’t limited to biting incidents.
First, employers should conduct a prompt investigation into allegations of workplace violence or other misconduct. Workplace disputes often hinge in some part on credibility determinations, since there are often no witnesses other than the two participants. Asking questions immediately could prevent the participants from being able to concoct more favorable versions of the facts.
Certainly, Suarez’s “bosses” – and indeed the whole world – benefitted from instant replay and a multitude of video cameras, allowing everyone to see exactly what happened. That still didn’t stop Suarez from initially denying any wrongdoing.
Second, employers should take a clear and firm stance against workplace violence or whatever other misconduct is at issue. Not only will it help uphold any discipline imposed, especially in unionized workplaces where the “just cause” standard applies, but it will prevent the victim (if there is one) from claiming that you failed to protect him or her.
It’s also generally good PR to boot.
To be sure, FIFA (the international body overseeing the World Cup) quickly imposed a four-month suspension on Suarez. However, the Uruguayan national team on which he was playing was quick to defend him and apparently plans to appeal the suspension.
Furthermore, his conduct hasn’t stopped a major club in Spain from pursuing him with a £40 million contract. I wouldn’t exactly call that universal condemnation.
Third, document, document, document. If you don’t think an employee’s conduct is bad enough to warrant severe discipline, at least keep records of it. Even better, consider utilizing progressive discipline (even if you’re not in a unionized environment).
Otherwise, if you let someone get away with something nine times in a row and then fire them after the tenth, you’re setting yourself up for a claim that it was just a pretext to disguise discrimination or retaliation.
It’s been reported that this was Suarez’s third foray into faux cannibalism. I doubt that most employers would keep an employee around after just one or two bites, even if they “apologize” and promise to reform.
Either way, that Spanish club (Barcelona, if you want specifics) seems to have at least partially gotten the message. According to one report, they’re planning to insist upon a “bite clause” in the contract. (It sounds like what we’d call a last-chance agreement, but I think Barcelona’s term has a catchier ring to it.)
Finally, be wary of the publicity your response might get. Granted, most readers don’t participate in international tournaments. Even so, it’s not difficult to get picked up by the popular press these days – and once bad PR hits the web, it bites down hard and doesn’t let go.
You may not get a biter in your workplace, but odds are that someone will lose their temper. When they do, it’s best to be prepared and have a plan of action in place.