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Zero-tolerance policies: an open door to trouble?

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Issue: Whether you should adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward employee misconduct.

Risks: A poor policy can trigger lawsuits, and even a well-drafted one can force you to fire otherwise-good employees.

Action: Create or revise your no-tolerance policy with the advice below. Advise managers to enforce it at all times and in all situations.

On paper, it seems like a good idea: You warn employees that your organization will not tolerate even one instance of on-the-job misconduct. But life isn't always so simple.

Examples: What if your top salesperson, an otherwise stellar employee, blows her stack at a manager one day? Do you automatically fire her? What if a valued supervisor tells an off-color joke that offends his secretary but no one else in the workplace? Do you fire him?

The main problem: Zero-tolerance policies are often too vague and difficult to interpret. Company policy might say an employee who sexually harasses another will be fired. But who decides what constitutes sexual harassment? Worse, failing to enforce your zero-tolerance policy at all times could lead to a wrongful-discharge lawsuit against your organization.

Use these four guidelines to develop and enforce a zero-tolerance policy:

1. Tackle only the worst behaviors. It's not worth the threat of going to court for minor employee indiscretions. Zero in on the most egregious behaviors, such as violence, theft and harassment. Just make sure you define it extensively.

2. Be specific. Specify the behaviors you won't tolerate. Don't just say, "We will not tolerate violence." Say, "Physical violence, including hitting, kicking and threats with weapons, will result in automatic suspension pending a full investigation." Describe how you will conduct that investigation.

3. Be consistent. Enforce your policy equally at all levels. Don't favor valued employees over poor performers. Treat all cases the same. Develop a checklist for investigating complaints and follow it rigorously in every case.

4. Be prepared to follow through. A zero-tolerance policy can spell consequences for the organization as well as the employee involved. Make sure your top execs understand and support the downside: They may have to fire otherwise-good employees, possibly sparking morale problems.

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