Why zero-tolerance policies never stop abuse

Columnist Rob Enderle writes that recent stories about Fox News and Uber highlight the nightmares of abusive workplace cultures. And while zero-tolerance policies may be good in theory he explains why they are terrible in practice.

zero tolerance policy primary

When I first came to the Silicon Valley it was to work for ROLM Systems and while I’d been recruited by firms like Microsoft, I chose ROLM because it actually had a Great Place to Work organization.   I’d worked for a number of companies before ROLM and I decided that the quality of my life was more important than the any other factor. Looking back, two of the best managers I’d ever had, and the happiest years, were spent there.   Sadly, ROLM was acquired and the firm that acquired it felt “Great Place To Work” was every manager’s job description, which, if you know how that works, means it is no one’s job description. As a result, I got to know some really nasty managers.

The recent stories about Fox News and Uber highlighting practices that are all too common in the technology industry made me want to share my thoughts on firms with histories of abuse. I want to look at why these practices exist, why they have been extremely hard to eliminate, and why you should -- when you choose a company or a manager to work for -- look at how a firm treats its employees as one of the key indicators of whether you should work for, or even buy from, them.

[ Related: Uber's CEO reacts, but who's buying it? ; Uber's CEO needs some serious mentoring ]

Cause for abuse

Generally, employee abuse often brought about by a perceived or real threat (more detail here) to the abuser. It is an abuse of power. If you are being abused it is likely because the abuser feels threatened and is attempting to reinforce a feeling of superiority. It may be because you refused a sexual advance; or it could be that you showed capability that they feel might make others think you’re more qualified for their job than they are; or they might believe that you weren’t showing them the respect they feel they deserve.  

You often see a lot of abuse in firms that are experiencing lots of layoffs, or where upward mobility is very constrained because the firm isn’t growing and in firms that practice Forced Ranking. However, you can also see this in firms growing too rapidly to effectively do background checks and are bringing in people with problems, this is part of the problem with Uber. Then you have firms where the problem is endemic, which appears to be the bigger problem with Uber and Fox News.  

If you have a CEO who is abusive and has a history of being called out for sexual harassment, chances are you’ll have an endemic problem. I recall one firm I worked for where there were serious issues with the board and CEO. Eventually, the HR vice president was fired for sexual harassment. That wasn’t just tough on female employees, it created a ton of drama and very costly settlements that eventually led to the firm being sold. In short, abuse and sexual harassment are bad business that creates a toxic atmosphere putting everyone’s job at risk.

Why it continues: Abuse and weak compliance

We’ve had policies against abuse and sexual harassment on the books for decades. Some firms I’ve worked for, and with, have some of the most aggressive zero-tolerance policies in the world yet often have high incidences of bad behavior. There are three reasons for this. One is that some employees abuse the rules, the numbers are low, but it happens enough that managers are put into a position to discredit those who abuse the rules.  

[ Related: Battling gender bias in IT ]

I had this happen to me when I was a young manager, and I think my life passed before my eyes. I had a female employee who had sticky fingers. I warned her once about stealing, but still she did it again, so I had to fire her. She then reported that I’d fired her because she wouldn’t go out with me. I was then faced with trying to prove I didn’t do anything wrong. My staff backed me up, given her theft had been also been reported by other staff, but I thought for a moment my career was over.  

Another reason why this behavior won’t go away any time soon is that complaining is often a career-ender regardless of the outcome. It makes you look weak, the more powerful person you are complaining about will work to create the impression you made it all up, and other managers won’t want you because you now represent a possible risk to them.  

And, finally, HR sucks as an investigative body. Since the 1970s, HR has largely been a regulation compliance organization. HR has little actual power, and it has no real resources to do an investigation or to protect the employee who complains, which would be critical to assuring the employee and manger were treated fairly.  

Outcomes often depend more on the attorney the employee hires than the merits of the case, and zero-tolerance policies don’t help because they are just stupid.

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