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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.

 

Why it continues: Abuse and weak compliance

We’ve had policies against abuse and sexual harassment on the books for decades. Some firms I’ve worked for, and with, have some of the most aggressive zero-tolerance policies in the world yet often have high incidences of bad behavior. There are three reasons for this. One is that some employees abuse the rules, the numbers are low, but it happens enough that managers are put into a position to discredit those who abuse the rules.  

I had this happen to me when I was a young manager, and I think my life passed before my eyes. I had a female employee who had sticky fingers. I warned her once about stealing, but still she did it again, so I had to fire her. She then reported that I’d fired her because she wouldn’t go out with me. I was then faced with trying to prove I didn’t do anything wrong. My staff backed me up, given her theft had been also been reported by other staff, but I thought for a moment my career was over.  

Another reason why this behavior won’t go away any time soon is that complaining is often a career-ender regardless of the outcome. It makes you look weak, the more powerful person you are complaining about will work to create the impression you made it all up, and other managers won’t want you because you now represent a possible risk to them.  

And, finally, HR sucks as an investigative body. Since the 1970s, HR has largely been a regulation compliance organization. HR has little actual power, and it has no real resources to do an investigation or to protect the employee who complains, which would be critical to assuring the employee and manger were treated fairly.  

Outcomes often depend more on the attorney the employee hires than the merits of the case, and zero-tolerance policies don’t help because they are just stupid.

Here is an example of why I say this. One of the most powerful tech companies in the world had a zero-tolerance policy. A high performing manager fell in love with someone lower in his chain of command, it was mutual. That manager attempted to address the problem by moving his love into another organization, with her permission, to remove the conflict so they could continue to date (they eventually married). However, both were fired instead of being rewarded for trying to honestly deal with the situation. They then received a massive settlement because they argued unfair enforcement since the married CEO, and his predecessor, both had affairs with employees (while married to other people) and had not been fired.

 

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