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.

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Here is an example of why I say this. One of the most powerful tech companies in the world had a zero-tolerance policy. A high performing manager fell in love with someone lower in his chain of command, it was mutual. That manager attempted to address the problem by moving his love into another organization, with her permission, to remove the conflict so they could continue to date (they eventually married). However, both were fired instead of being rewarded for trying to honestly deal with the situation. They then received a massive settlement because they argued unfair enforcement since the married CEO, and his predecessor, both had affairs with employees (while married to other people) and had not been fired.

The firm lost two highly productive employees and a ton of money. The lesson learned for the employees was that it is better to cover things up than to try and actually address the problem. People are people, and attraction is virtually impossible to regulate.

Why you should avoid zero-tolerance policies

This may sound strange, but I’d avoid companies with zero-tolerance policies. The implication is that the executive staff thinks their managers can’t manage and these polices generally do more harm than good. Since technology firms are being measured for diversity right now, those that fill that need have an advantage, and more choice, than would typically be the case. Ask about and research the firm’s history regarding abuse. Every large company will have had issues, look at how the situations were handled, whether they will speak openly about them (or pretend they didn’t exist), and make this part of your consideration process.   Also, observe how the employees treat each other and their manager. Are they friendly, respectful, and humorous or do you see fear, resentment, or distrust.  

One more piece of hard-learned advice, if you think you see abuse don’t report it, approach the allegedly abused employee after the event and tell them you’ll back them up if they report it themselves. The reason for this is that you may have taken what you saw out of context and, even if you didn’t, you don’t know the situation and likely can’t protect them.

I’ll leave you with one final story. I once worked at a service organization where employees were like family. Two female sales reps walking through the department one day and observed the following: A female tech asked her manager in the call center what she’d need to do to get a raise and her manager made what was clearly an inappropriate joking response. It was a joke he would have made with any of the male techs as well because this kind of banter was common in the group, was not offensive to any who participated (the techs tended towards salty language but their performance was unmatched).

The sales reps reported the conversation, the manager did not deny anything, and zero tolerance kicked in and he was removed from management and the employee who’d asked for the raise felt responsible. The result showcased that even well-meaning attempts to address abuse can, in and of themselves, become an abuse of power if the report is merely a perception of abuse, but the reality is that no abuse had taken place.

In the end, I’m suggesting you pick firms that value actually treating their people right over those that are more interested in creating and maintaining a false perception.   Good luck!

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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