“WE HAVE A ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY.” Do you? Are you sure? Really? The words “zero tolerance” show up throughout the compliance world – in policies, on websites, and on posters in breakrooms. Compliance officers tend to like the sound of them – “zero tolerance” means we’re serious. But if we scratch the surface, those words are often dangerous. Why?
1. They’re Almost Certainly Untrue
“Zero” is defined by the dictionary as “the absence of a quantity or number.” How many times have you had an infraction of a policy that didn’t lead to immediate disciplinary action? If an employee strays a small amount over the hospitality limit or forgets to register a modest gift in the registry, are they hauled into HR and given a written warning? If someone doesn’t declare a conflict of interest, are they thrown out on their ear? If you write “zero tolerance, resulting in discipline up to and including termination,” then discipline should always be the outcome of any minor infraction.
Even if you’d like to be serious about zero tolerance, the Legal and HR team probably won’t let that happen. Why? Because companies are worried about being sued, and there is a tried-and-true method in America for creating a paper trail that allows someone to be fired in a way that is less likely to trigger a lawsuit, including escalating consequences and the implementation of an employee performance plan. In Europe, employment contracts can make it difficult, and at times almost impossible, to fire an employee, especially for small policy violations.
2. Second Chances Exist
Humans have an innate need to temper justice with mercy. People make mistakes. Good people make bad choices. Company leadership changes. Corporate monitors change practices and culture. Second chances exist.
We see this constantly with suppliers or third-parties that have red flags or prior convictions. One of my friends in the defense industry candidly said, “If we didn’t use third-parties with prior convictions and red flags, we couldn’t do business at all in some countries. We use strong contract terms, training, etc. to mitigate risk. But we still use them because we have to.” If a critical third-party suddenly shows up in a negative media article unrelated to their work with the company, is that grounds for immediate termination?
What if you find out that your supplier has a program where they work with jailed felons to rehabilitate them into the work force – is that prison labor? What if they have an unpaid intern? Or it’s a small family business where their children work in the afternoon? Will you terminate each of these relationships immediately because of your zero tolerance policy? Or, instead of enforcing your zero-tolerance policy, would you work with the supplier to enforce the contract, make a change plan with them, then exercise your audit rights to ensure that the contract is being followed? If it’s a business-critical supplier, in most companies, the supplier will be worked with so that the relationship can move forward.
3. Employees Won’t Believe You
Belief in the compliance program breaks down as soon as employee see that policies aren’t being followed or enforced. If you use the words, “zero tolerance,” and employees see that those words are hollow, that attitude will spread throughout the employee population and to all areas of your compliance and ethics program.
If decide against using the words “zero tolerance,” what should you use instead? How about one of these:
· Committed to
· Always strive for
· Take very seriously
· Determined to
· Serious about
· Pledge to
· Strive to
By banning “zero tolerance,” you’ll bring more truth to your program. And that truth will be much more tolerable to your employees, managers, customers and third-parties.
1 and 3 relate back to each as well; if employees see that disparity exists in the enforcement of policies, especially when individuals in a protected class are targets of the harsher discipline, the lawsuits that HR and Legal try to avoid could become present again.