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Podcast: Why Zero-Tolerance Policies Are a Bad Idea

Many companies trumpet their zero-tolerance discipline policies as evidence of their strong stance against bad workplace behavior. But this podcast examines how these policies might actually do more harm than good with Robin Shea, a partner with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, and the author of the firm's Employment and Labor Insider blog.

"They're way too strict," said Shea. "Most employees view these policies as meaning that if you commit an offense, you will be fired with no consideration of mitigating circumstances." According to Shea, the result is that some employees will not report certain misconduct because they do not want to see a coworker fired for something that likely falls short of a terminable offense.

This podcast also discusses an incident in which zero tolerance led to a seemingly absurd result in which two employees with unblemished records were fired for telling an off-color joke in a private office when they thought no one else was around. As Shea notes, "You don't want to use an atomic bomb to kill a gnat." EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum has taken a similar view of these policies. She has said that zero-tolerance policies make it more difficult to fight workplace harassment because they chill reporting in situations in which employees just want the conduct to stop.

So what's an employer to do? Shea said they can start by skipping the "zero tolerance" expression. Instead, she asserted that employers just need to make clear that they take all complaints of misconduct seriously and that claims of misbehavior will be thoroughly investigated.

Additional Resources

How to Design a Disciplinary Procedure