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Why zero-tolerance policies never stop abuse

Rob Enderle | April 10, 2017
Columnist Rob Enderle writes that recent stories about Fox News and Uber highlight the nightmares of abusive workplace cultures. And while zero-tolerance policies may be good in theory he explains why they are terrible in practice.

zero-tolerance policies

When I first came to the Silicon Valley it was to work for ROLM Systems and while I’d been recruited by firms like Microsoft, I chose ROLM because it actually had a Great Place to Work organization.   I’d worked for a number of companies before ROLM and I decided that the quality of my life was more important than the any other factor. Looking back, two of the best managers I’d ever had, and the happiest years, were spent there.   Sadly, ROLM was acquired and the firm that acquired it felt “Great Place To Work” was every manager’s job description, which, if you know how that works, means it is no one’s job description. As a result, I got to know some really nasty managers.

The recent stories about Fox News and Uber highlighting practices that are all too common in the technology industry made me want to share my thoughts on firms with histories of abuse. I want to look at why these practices exist, why they have been extremely hard to eliminate, and why you should -- when you choose a company or a manager to work for -- look at how a firm treats its employees as one of the key indicators of whether you should work for, or even buy from, them.


Cause for abuse

Generally, employee abuse often brought about by a perceived or real threat (more detail here) to the abuser. It is an abuse of power. If you are being abused it is likely because the abuser feels threatened and is attempting to reinforce a feeling of superiority. It may be because you refused a sexual advance; or it could be that you showed capability that they feel might make others think you’re more qualified for their job than they are; or they might believe that you weren’t showing them the respect they feel they deserve.  

You often see a lot of abuse in firms that are experiencing lots of layoffs, or where upward mobility is very constrained because the firm isn’t growing and in firms that practice Forced Ranking. However, you can also see this in firms growing too rapidly to effectively do background checks and are bringing in people with problems, this is part of the problem with Uber. Then you have firms where the problem is endemic, which appears to be the bigger problem with Uber and Fox News.  

If you have a CEO who is abusive and has a history of being called out for sexual harassment, chances are you’ll have an endemic problem. I recall one firm I worked for where there were serious issues with the board and CEO. Eventually, the HR vice president was fired for sexual harassment. That wasn’t just tough on female employees, it created a ton of drama and very costly settlements that eventually led to the firm being sold. In short, abuse and sexual harassment are bad business that creates a toxic atmosphere putting everyone’s job at risk.


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