Is "Zero Tolerance" an ambiguous term, we asked recently?  We did not anticipate the reactions which we received — some were hostile to the very notion of "zero tolerance," some found it lacked due process elements, and others found that it could cause unanticipated problems in the workplace. 

 

Here is a sample of four reader reactions:

 

 

 1.  Zero Tolerance is A Synonym for Non-thinking

 

"Zero Tolerance is not ambiguous at all – it is a synonym for non-thinking. Zero Tolerance replaces thoughtful weighing of the facts and circumstances with knee-jerk reaction. It replaces fitting the punishment to the crime with draconian penalty. It assumes a crime where there may be none. It is, in short, a miserable excuse for policy."

 

 

2.  Zero Tolerance Introduces Opportunities for Bias and Provides No Due Process

"Among some social justice advocates, zero tolerance policies are in disfavor. This is because when they are used in schools in regard to alleged violence, for example, they almost inevitably work against African-American students. Although such policies seem objective, when implemented they are subjective, and introduce opportunities for bias. They also provide no due process, no opportunity for introduction of evidence or rebuttal, and no progressivity in discipline. They take away thought and consideration, and can lead to absurd results, like the small boy who got kicked out of school because he pointed his finger at someone and said "bang."

"This statement you are considering, ""organizations in which employees believe that (1) their company takes the issue [of harassment] seriously; (2) it is safe to complain; and (3) there are meaningful sanctions for offending, have many fewer problems with sexual harassment. The belief among employees that their organizations ‘tolerate’ harassment is the most powerful predictor of whether it will occur and will be damaging if it does," is okay, but leaves out nondiscrimination policies and the important neutral, objective, and prompt investigative step."

 

 

3.  Zero Tolerance Should Be Reserved For Serious Violations

 

"That people are unaware of what "Zero Tolerance" means, that there is ambiguity at all, is concerning. In some organizations it means that the maximum penalty is applied (most seriously is termination and/or prosecution under the law if applicable) regardless of circumstances if it is confirmed that the particular policy is violated. In other organizations it actually means that some form of disciplinary action will occur (but not necessarily the maximum penalty) and what exactly will happen will depend on the circumstances. Of course, the actual application of this term, depending on the organization, as been everywhere in between these two ends.

And that, perhaps, is why the term has such ambiguity. Does it need a legal definition? Does it need some sort of policy definition that is uniquely different from organization to organization? Does it need to go away altogether in favor of clearly defined consequences for the actions that currently have "Zero Tolerance"? What is best for each organization may depend on the corporate and ethical cultures of the organization. In either case, Zero Tolerance should be reserved for serious violations (and usually is) and should be anything BUT ambiguous.

There should always be nondiscrimination policies as well as neutral, objective, and prompt investigative steps followed to ensure that the truth is discovered and that the punishment fits the crime."

 

4.  One Size Does Not Fit All — The Punishment Should Fit The Crime

 

"I don’t think the issue is so much about the "zero tolerance" as it is with the one size fits all discipline practice where some organizations apply the same harsh discipline to all violations regardless of how minor. There should be an investigation and then the punishment should fit the crime. That punishment could be as simple as telling someone what they just said or did is not acceptable and don’t do it again or it could be as serious as termination."

 

Keep those cards and letters coming in!