The Company has adopted a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ with regard to employee harassment.
There will be zero tolerance for derogatory racial, ethnic, religious, age, sexual or other inappropriate remarks, slurs, or jokes.
[Name of Company] will operate a zero tolerance policy for any form of sexual harassment in the workplace, treat all incidents seriously and promptly investigate all allegations of sexual harassment.
These are just a few of the phrases I pulled from my collection of employee handbooks.
Implementing a zero tolerance policy in your workplace can seem like the right thing to do. No one wants a workplace where sexual harassment, discriminatory jokes or violence are permitted, right?
Zero tolerance seems to be an obvious fix. It’s clear and easily understood. The policy sends a direct message your workplace is safe, free from discrimination or free from harassment. Why wouldn’t every workplace want to adopt this?
Zero tolerance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however. Some states and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission find zero-tolerance policies problematic in many ways. But why?
For starters, policies are meaningless unless the company enforces them. Enforcing zero tolerance can prove much harder than it seems at first glance.
- Your office has a zero tolerance policy for violence. Two employees get into an argument and one shoves the other. Your policy requires you fire the employee who did the shoving.
- An employee handbook states a zero tolerance policy for derogatory jokes. A new hire makes a crude joke at the start of a staff meeting. Do you really want to dismiss her immediately? Under the policy, you are required to do this.
In a real-life example, in 2012, AutoZone fired an employee who, during an armed robbery, snuck out of the store, grabbed a legally registered gun from his car and came back in to yell “freeze” at the person robbing his workplace. AutoZone had a zero tolerance for weapons policy and, despite the employee’s heroism, he was fired.
The most important part of your company policies is how you enforce them. If you aren’t following the policies you set out employees may start to feel like everything in your handbook is a suggestion. So, if you aren’t prepared to actively enforce a zero tolerance policy consider drafting something more flexible.
Another reason to nix the phrase zero tolerance from your next company manual? These policies can discourage employees from reporting less egregious behavior. After all, if you feel uncomfortable around a co-worker but believe she’ll be fired if you raise concerns to your boss you may be tempted to keep quiet until the issue is unbearable.
If your policy allows for flexibility and discretion your staff feels less pressure to be “sure” before raising an issue, often allowing the company to step in before problems grow to a major issue.
You do need to address harassment, discrimination and other problematic behaviors in your policies, however. But what’s the alternative to a zero-tolerance policy? Something more flexible than zero tolerance. The best policies allow companies to have some discretion around final outcomes.
You always want to investigate allegations (and your policy should indicate that you do this) but, when you lock yourself into zero tolerance you limit your options to either a) always firing a person for any infraction or b) not enforcing the policy and thus causing your staff to discount that policy and all others. Neither of these are great options.