Why I have ZERO TOLERANCE for Zero Tolerance

“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 …