The Problem with Zero Tolerance

Every manager has done it.  You get sick of people complaining about something that you don’t consider worth your time to manage so you implement a zero tolerance policy.  “If this happens again then this punishment will be enforced. Period.”  There, that should fix the problem, right?  Wrong.

Unfortunately, zero-tolerance policies are often implemented because it seems like they’ll make managing the issue easier and less work so you can focus on “more important” things.  They fail because they are much more work to implement and manage. Often as managers we figure that if the rule is black and white, with clear consequences, people will abide by the rules and it will be easier to manage the odd indiscretion.  It just doesn’t work that way.  There will be indiscretions and the zero tolerance manager is backed into a corner.  No matter how minor the issue, because of the “Rule” the manager has to either enforce what seems like an unreasonable penalty or lose credibility by not doing what she says she will do.  Neither is good for morale. Neither is good leadership.

There are areas where zero tolerance policies work and are necessary – when an indiscretion can be devastating.  Workplace safety for example.  Often what seems like a minor issue can result in injury or death so the policy can be easily justified both from the view of the manager and the employee.  But they must be communicated clearly, frequently and they must be enforced diligently.  This is more work, but in the case of safety, it must be done.

Zero tolerance policies are a lot of work to manage.  Therefore,  the questions to ask before implementing a zero tolerance policy are:

1. Is the issue worth the extra work it will take to implement, constantly communicate, and consistently enforce the policy?

2. Are you as a company willing to do the extra work to implement, constantly communicate, and consistently enforce the policy?


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