I was relieved when President Biden told his incoming staff, “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treating another colleague with disrespect, talking down to someone, I will fire you on the spot. . . . Everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity.” If only more CEOs took a strong stance on appropriate behavior.
Everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity, but the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies is worth a discussion.
First, in my experience most organizations aren’t following their core values or their harassment prevention policy, so this added layer of zero tolerance is a big pill for most of them to swallow. I suspect for many that it would be a promise the organization just can’t keep.
Zero tolerance tends to refer to automatic discharge of any violators regardless of mitigating factors or severity. If zero tolerance means a one-size-fits-all approach and every instance brings the same level of discipline, many will hesitate to report bad behavior for fear of the perpetrator losing their job. Generally, targets just want the behavior to stop, not to get people fired.
Second, zero-tolerance policies also assume the problematic behavior is the individual’s fault and that the person should take full responsibility for it.
Human behavior isn’t that simple, however, and context matters more than most employers acknowledge. The Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, for example, provides a long list of organizational factors that facilitate harassment.
In my work as an executive coach to leaders who engage in bullying, I’ve identified many organizational problems that led an individual down the path of bullying. A lack of feedback is one example. If the leader had received feedback earlier on in their journey to bad behavior, the problem would have been easier to resolve at that earlier point in time.
The organizations not providing honest feedback to leaders who bully are also not training leaders, managers, or supervisors in the art of delivering effective feedback. If the leader had been trained in delivering feedback, perhaps they would be delivering it well instead of through bullying behavior. In other words, a positive workplace culture includes a culture of constructive feedback.
Third, where are the managers in all this zero-tolerance promotion? Isn’t it their jobs to manage behavior and performance? It may be better, given the gray areas that come with human behavior, for managers to learn how to spot negative behavior, weigh the seriousness of it, mediate conflict when appropriate, and coach employees who regularly behave in exclusive or disrespectful ways.
Fourth, zero-tolerance policies probably violate many organizations’ core values. If your company’s core values include innovation, inclusivity, or customer service, for example, strict adherence to rules is contradictory.
Instead of zero-tolerance policies, smart organizations understand that true prevention of bullying and harassment comes from training in areas like giving feedback, coaching, communication skills, respectful workplace behaviors, internal customer service, and more. Smart organizations conduct climate assessments to understand what employees need and address those needs swiftly.
Smart organizations also hold people accountable to behaving in ways that are inclusive, respectful, and civil. When people step out of line, the culture of feedback kicks in and people feel comfortable to discuss the situation so it can be resolved.
Bad behavior is not an HR problem to be resolved with zero-tolerance policies. It’s an organizational culture problem to be resolved by experts in organizational development and change in partnership with leaders, HR, and the entire workforce.