Why Zero Tolerance Policies Fail.
By Simma Lieberman
Tuesday, 22nd August 2006
Does your organization have a "zero tolerance policy" for harassment and discrimination? Whenever anyone mentions the words harassment or discrimination, do you or one of your employees immediately let people know you have a "zero tolerance policy" and "won't stand for that kind of behavior"? I hear this all the time in organizations where I consult.

So what's the problem with this? Isn't it good if companies, universities and government agencies take a stand? Yes, in concept, it's a great idea, but in reality, too often harassment and discrimination still occur in organizations with zero tolerance policies.

Why? Because a policy that is a slogan means nothing. In order to prevent harassment and discrimination in any organization, everyone from the leadership on down has to have a common definition of harassment and discrimination and know what behaviors constitute those charges. Everyone needs to be provided with training, and a well defined process to use when they feel they have been a target, or witness harassment or discrimination. And it's not enough to have people go through some two hour workshop to know the laws. Don't wait until a law is broken and you are faced with an expensive lawsuit that you have to defend, or morale gets so low and people have stopped talking to each other.

Missing Links in Zero Tolerance Policies: Microinequities and Education

As a diversity consultant I have seen that proclaiming zero tolerance does not deal with the issue of microinequities. Those are the words and behaviors that are not so blatant, the ones that are harder to understand without the willingness to listen and engage in cross-cultural conversations. Microinequities are the things that can result in exclusion, shutting someone down, interfering with people's abilities to do their best work and loss of talent. Microinequities are like those little drops of water that are small but constant. They start out as a small leak and unless that leak is fixed, it accumulates and becomes a flood.

Alvin Pouissant of Harvard University once referred to the impact of microinequities on another person as "death by a thousand nicks." They occur in many ways; when addressing a group only looking at people who are the same race or gender as you, constantly confusing people from the same race, only informing people who are like you about advancement opportunities, making decisions during informal social activities with "all the guys" in places where women would not be comfortable.

Would these actions come under "zero tolerance" policy? Not likely, but they result in consistent and often unintentional exclusion of people from groups different than you.

How would you know if this were occurring in your organization? Without education and dialogue chances are you wouldn't. At some point you might notice that a lot of people from different groups were leaving, but you might not know why.

If zero tolerance policies alone don't work, what does?

The most effective way to prevent harassment and discrimination is to create opportunities for people to get to know each other and develop working relationships together. When people have meaningful conversations they no longer look at other people in terms of labels and stereotypes. When people harass others because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc, they are seeing the other person or group as less human. When people have personal interactions with other in a facilitated non-threatening environment, their viewpoints about people who are different almost always change.

It can be very easy to dehumanize whole groups if your ideas about them are based on the media, hearsay or even one negative experience.

Training needs to include communication skills that allow people to ask and answer questions and give each other feedback. If I know you as a person who I have developed a level of trust with because we have worked together and been engaged in a dialogue across differences, I will be more comfortable telling you if you say something that offends me. If you know, trust and like me you will listen to my words, not get defensive, apologize and stop your behavior, and we can continue our working relationship. We'll still be comfortable asking each other for help and offering help. If we have had no interaction, and don't know each other on a human level, if you say something that offends me I won't say anything to you. I may tell a whole lot of others, who may look at you funny and not want to work with you. You may not even be aware of what you said, and may even say it again. This time I would be so angry, I might tell a more senior manager, who might confront you. You'll get defensive, angry at me, continue the behavior and I might file a lawsuit or leave. Since the company has a "zero tolerance policy," you might eventually lose your job and never understand what you did.

A recent study with doctors and lawsuits found that people were much less likely to sue a doctor who listened to them and engaged in personal interaction even after they found that the doctor had made a mistake.

In my work as a diversity strategist I have found that most people do not wake up in the morning planning to be a harasser, or discriminate against someone else. I have also found that a great many people are not aware of the impact their behavior and words have on others but when given the opportunity and information are willing to learn and choose to let go of stereotypes and old behavior.

Steps to creating an inclusive work environment

So if you want to go beyond a zero tolerance policy, prevent harassment and discrimination and create an inclusive work environment where people can communicate easily consider these steps:

  • In creating a written policy, define what you mean.
  • Train and educate the whole organization about harassment and discrimination issues. Go beyond the laws, and include information, skills and tools so everyone understands how prevention benefits the organization and themselves as individuals.
  • Invest the time for employees to engage in diversity dialogues, cross-cultural conversations and meaningful conversations with each other in order to prevent misunderstandings, miscommunication and missed opportunities to share ideas and resources.
  • Become aware of any microinequities in your organization at all levels and develop a strategy to eliminate them.
  • If these steps are included in any diversity/culture change initiative, there will be no room for those who are involved in deliberate harassment and discrimination, and you will use your zero tolerance policy as it should be intended.
About Simma...

Simma Lieberman helps create environments where people in organizations can do their best work and enjoy what they do. She is known for her work in Diversity and Inclusion, Diversity Dialogues that Make Difficult Conversations Simple, and How to Break the Barriers of Fear and Self-Doubt. Simma works with corporations, colleges and community and professional organizations.Simma is the author of Putting Diversity to Work (Crisp Publications, 2003), a guide for managers on leveraging diversity in the workplace. She is quoted in various national magazines and news sources, including The Economist, Redbook, Human Resources Executive, Black MBA, MSNBC and Fox News. Her clients include McDonalds, Pillsbury, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, AT&T, Monster.com, Diageo, Stanford Court Hotel and the Women's Food Service Forum.
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