Technical Foul on Sun's Owner: Inside the Hostile Work Environment of the NBA Phoenix Suns

Technical Foul on Sun's Owner: Inside the Hostile Work Environment of the NBA Phoenix Suns

Once again, the NBA is in the spotlight and it isn't because of Steph Curry's shooting record. Another incident of misconduct has surfaced within the NBA. You've probably heard about the LA Clippers and the story of their owner Donald Sterling or the Dallas Mavericks and President Terdema Ussery. Now the Phoenix Suns and majority owner Robert Sarver are also in the news for workplace harassment.

In a detailed ESPN article written by Baxter Holmes, more than 70 former and current Suns employees throughout Sarver's 17-year tenure describe multiple detailed allegations of racism, misogynistic and inappropriate conduct, and creating a toxic work environment. Many felt Sarver's conduct trickled down to other managers within the organization, as they also contributed to the workplace toxicity of the organization. Sarver hired legal counsel and denied these allegations, but welcomed an investigation. The league announced that it did not receive a complaint of misconduct at the Suns organization, but the NBA nevertheless hired a private New York-based law firm, Wachtell Lipton, to investigate the allegations.

Former and current employees of the Suns say demeaning and sexual comments began in 2004. Some of the allegations against Sarver include using the N-word numerous times and treating women unfairly by subjecting them to verbal and sexual harassment. One accusation claims that Sarver hired Earl Watson as head coach because he was black and could relate to black players. During Watson's tenure, he told Sarver that the Suns suffered from a lack of diversity and Sarver responded "I don't like diversity." Saver then fired Watson when Watson refused to fire a black sports agent per Sarver's orders.

In the ESPN article, employees also spoke out about the general fear of being retaliated against if they went to HR. One HR representative stated, "employees were told not to file complaints and should meet outside of the office to talk so management wouldn't see anyone go to HR." Employees that did make HR complaints were fired and, when considering legal action, they were offered severance packages in exchange for signing non-disclosure agreements.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver did what any employer should do in such a situation--he launched an investigation into harassment within the workplace. Such a step is in line with the NBA’s avowed commitment to fight harassment. In 2018, for example, the NBA established a confidential hotline for league and team employees to report concerns, including but not limited to sexual harassment.

Teams within the NBA each have their own policies and procedures to keep the workplace free from harassment and discrimination. These can include sexual harassment and discrimination training, diversity and inclusion training, enforcing human rights and workplace policies, and protecting any employee who may come forward with a complaint. Yet even with these policies in place, employees may still fear retaliation. And while retaliation is prohibited by equal employment opportunity laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers may have to take additional steps to put their workers at ease, including the following:

  • Maintaining the confidentiality of the identity of employees making reports, at least as much as possible.
  • When concerns are reported, taking visible action and imposing consequences for those who violate workplace policies.
  • Training executives, management, supervisors, etc. on how to appropriately respond to any issues of misconduct.
  • Thoughtfully abiding by the company's policy on retaliation.
  • Establishing effective programs and policies to save time and money on defending lawsuits.

When businesses put into practice these sorts of measures, it signals to employees that the company cares about their well-being. It also helps foster a healthy workplace culture and reduces the chances that hostility and harassment will crop up. Consider talking to your team or HR department about how to foster a safer and more productive workplace, so you avoid having an employee call foul.

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