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Zero Tolerance – A Seductive Concept? July 30, 2012

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

During a training session, one of my participants, who was a ‘Litter Enforcement Officer’, told me that he has to follow a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy.  As soon as he sees someone throw litter on the street, the person concerned is immediately fined £75.  The fine is applied irrespective of whether the person apologies profusely (or not) or goes to great lengths to pick up the litter in question.

With the example above, the Zero Tolerance is obvious; someone drops litter, they are fined – no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’ and certainly no ‘pleases’.  Various organisations such as the NHS, schools, colleges and public transport all brand Zero Tolerance as a badge of honour and a mechanism for setting boundaries.  But what does this really mean in practice?  How would you explain this to, say, Mrs Smith who’s 78 and who asks the question?

Zero Tolerance can only be achieved by knowing where we stand, with a clear direction and ongoing discussions which can be backed up by a moral and ethical code.  To put simply to ‘do no harm’ with your attitude, and  use of your   body/verbal language.

There are various thoughts about tolerance, for instance that no one should ever know of ‘the tyranny of your heart’, that one should tolerate others’ behaviour as long as it does no harm.  However, what are the limits of tolerance?  Does one define the concept of harm to include subjective harm?  So, from Mrs Smith’s point of view, is there an unwillingness to debate, argue or make a strong point in case it is perceived as harmful?  Interestingly, some elderly people consider themselves to be beyond reprimand in terms of their attitudes to others.  Is it worth applying the principles of Zero Tolerance to them?

A colleague told me that, on entering a bus recently, he realised to his dismay that he had lost his monthly, pre-paid bus pass and did not have any change.  When he attempted to explain this to the bus driver, the driver’s response was to harangue him publicly, whilst telling him he does not have to put up with the public arguing with him because the bus company has a Zero Tolerance Policy.   It seems that the driver was using ‘Zero Tolerance Policy as a ‘get out clause’; an excuse to not listen to a customer whilst undermining him publicly.  This  example clearly shows how Zero Tolerance of the customer’s reasonable behaviour was perceived as aggression and became an absurdity because ultimately it encouraged further aggression to end it.

Zero Tolerance is about treating others with respect and dignity; but what are the implications for practice?  Zero Tolerance means that organisations need to deal seriously with unacceptable behaviour and take appropriate action.  As seductive as it may seem, Zero Tolerance is fundamentally about curbing rude, aggressive behaviour and alleviating fear.  Although the aim is to tackle unacceptable behaviour firmly, right from the outset, is there too much focus on seemingly trivial, possibly annoying but petty behaviour?  Does this approach sap people’s enthusiasm for responding appropriately to unacceptable behaviour?  On the other hand, police advisors advocate that, by dealing with ‘unruly’ behaviour early and promptly, standards of what is or is not acceptable can be set more effectively.

Although Zero Tolerance smacks of policing rather thanmanaging behaviour, within the context of a given situation, it should also be about supporting and guiding individuals towards appropriate behaviour rather than always enforcing this through some form of discipline or sanction.  However, the fact remains that there has to be a cut off point: ‘That’s it.  Enough’.

Fundamentally, Zero Tolerance Policy has to be applied with intelligence, common sense and discretion.  Spending an inordinate amount of time, energy and money without achieving positive, long term outcomes will turn the concept into a mockery and alienate people into the process.  However, it is worth considering that when Zero Tolerance rules are applied to others, we applaud, but when the same rules are applied to us, we consider it unfair…



1. Bernie Althofer - July 31, 2012

I am not a fan of a zero tolerance approach towards bullying for many reasons. Given that anyone of us can say or do something that another may perceive to be bullying, it can create some difficulties in the application of such a policy.

For example, if a manager says to a worker “As a matter of interest, what do you have on next week” and the worker complains that they have been bullied because of that question, and a regulatory body affirms that the managers action were ‘unreasonable’, then under a zero tolerance approach, the manager would be penalised (no questions asked – even though the manager could prove his actions were reasonable).

We might have a far better chance of learning how to manage counterproductive workplace behaviours such as bullying.

If organisations take a zero tolerance approach, they may find that any form of communication or even management practices are severely curtailed as officers and workers become ‘fearful’ of doing or saying anything that might create a perception of bullying.

Spelling out exactly what is mean by zero tolerance and the types of behaviour of conduct mean to be addressed seems to be without limit. For example, a manager who does include a worker in a meeting could be accused of bullying. A worker holds back documentation that a manager needs could be accused of bullying. Making comments or suggestions that another does not agree could also be perceived to be bullying.

I would expect that there would be some interesting and lively conversations about this topic.

2. Girish Parekh - July 31, 2012

Zero tolerance policy conveys to all concerned that organization/company,coroaration/govt/ etc is extremely serious and strict about not tolerating racism, bulleying, harassment, discrimination etc, However, very strict application of it would be difficult since it is always not cut and dry situation, Therefore, some objective probe and investigation is required before any conclusions are drawn and the policy is applied.

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