A big "no" to zero tolerance

Zero-tolerance policies can promote distrust.

Often in desperation, a company will look to the concept of “Zero Tolerance” as a solution to safety violations. If violations are excessive, is a zero-tolerance policy the way to go?

Will the extreme intolerance associated with this type of policy improve the safety process in a facility and lead to increased safe practices and elimination of the objectionable offense(s)?

Is using a zero-tolerance policy an easy, fast fix?

Experience and history point to an answer of NO. When dealing with workplace safety breaches, more is needed than rhetoric and reactionary approaches. Plus, definitions are heavily negative and denote very little flexibility. In essence, the policy is geared to empirical black and white with no room for grey areas.

History & studies/results
Numerous studies have been done to correlate reduction in violations and the institution of zero-tolerance policies. To date, data does not support conclusive evidence that zero-tolerance policies result in safer school environments and significant reduction of infractions.

Some research indicates that bad behavior has increased and drop-out rates in middle and secondary schools are higher. A study conducted by the Indiana Education Policy Center at Indiana University reported: “There is no credible evidence that zero tolerance is effective. Furthermore, school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.”

While zero-tolerance policies in the workforce environments have not been tested as long as in school environments, and we are dealing with adults as opposed to children, the same pitfalls and risks in using this type of policy are very similar.

  1. Zero tolerance removes disciplinary discretion. Managers and supervisors need to have choices in how to handle misconduct. Once a single approach system used for discipline is documented, managers and supervision have no recourse other than enforce the maximum penalty. Unless this can be done across the board, applying to all employees (management, supervision and hourly), a company may be open to legal issues.
  2. Often violations are narrowly defined, allowing for no extenuating circumstances. In addition, the infraction may be so narrowly stated that interpretations can vary significantly. For example, if no weapons are allowed in the workforce and no definitive description is given of what a weapon is, some may consider something simple as a screwdriver a weapon. Likewise, in the case of “horseplay,” people have varying opinions of what constitutes this type of behavior.
  3. A great majority of employees are reluctant to come forward to “rat” on violators either because there is a lack of trust that enforcement will be taken or conversely, they consider the policy extreme and become fearful. A zero-tolerance policy relies heavily on violation reporting. Due to the severe, unrelenting punishment involved many are reluctant to blow the whistle on their co-workers.
  4. Sometimes, this emphasis on reporting opens the door for an employee to get back at someone he/she does not like…the almighty goal of revenge.
  5. It is nearly impossible for management/supervision to catch all or even most acts of misconduct. Many incidents slip through the cracks.
  6. Zero-tolerance policies in many companies are “knee-jerk” reactions and are rarely planned out in detail or effectively communicated.
  7. Policies are normally top-down driven and do not utilize input from the lower ranks.
  8. The fear factor association. The word “intolerance” itself is a strong catalyst for fear. Extensive research strongly indicates that “fear in the workforce” rarely increases productivity, quality or safety. Fear propagates short-term thinking. Dr. W. Deming believed that fear was so unproductive and harmful that it should be driven out as much as possible in the work environment. He asserted that fear inhibits cooperation. The fostering of cooperation is an underlying theme in all of Deming’s theories on continual improvement, growth and success of a company.
  9. Too often, “zero tolerance” is merely a slogan or a vision statement. It is intended to show toughness and commitment to stop unwanted behavior.
  10. Too often, no strategy is applied. In order for any process to work toward success, careful planning, definition, strategies, full participation and communication are vital. A policy that is a slogan means “nothing”…zero.
A better path
In order to create a positive change, a new safety culture must be attained. This can be accomplished utilizing these methods:
  • Identify your existing “Now” culture, utilizing cultural surveys with input from all employees; all departments.
  • Plan for solutions to identified areas for improvement involving input from the entire workforce population in resolutions.
  • Plan for a “new” safety culture and secure leadership commitment with a policy of “lead by example.” Move toward emphasis on proactive vs. reactive and leading over lagging indicators.
  • Pinpoint all best practices; desired behaviors and conditions for the entire facility and measure daily. What gets measured gets done.
  • Develop and commit to a strong communication system, flowing in all directions: top-down, lateral, bottom-up.
  • Prepare and implement a strong, very definitive disciplinary policy. Enforce it consistently and fairly. Communicate the policy periodically to establish its legitimacy. Allow for flexibility and conflict management. Build in the allowance for extenuating circumstances.
  • Establish and support a strong “Lead Team” with resources that allow the team to keep the workforce informed and involved. Promote workforce ownership.
  • Provide on-going training and education and opportunity for continuous review of policies and the safety process.
  • Encourage near miss reporting and use the data to arrive at solutions and preventative measures. This activity can be used to predict and prevent future injuries.
  • Define thoroughly and communicate in detail roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.
  • Recognize and reward specific, proactive behaviors. Reinforce desired behaviors observed with positive feedback. Celebrate small successes and process activities completed. Congratulate participation.
  • Continually re-evaluate and re-train.
Trust among different levels of employees often scores low in our culture surveys. And trust is one of the foundations upon which your improved culture rests. Severe, inflexible policies such as zero-tolerance, as they are commonly implemented today, are not conducive to building trust.

Zero-tolerance philosophies emerge in safety processes due to very legitimate concerns that cannot be ignored. Although there are practices or behaviors that are totally unacceptable in the safety arena, it’s doubtful that “zero tolerance” is going to effectively stop them from occurring.

Strong, well-defined disciplinary policies consistently and fairly applied allowing for extenuating circumstances promise to be more effective over the long term. Accompanying discipline must be a systematic process to identify desired behaviors and conditions, communication and positive reinforcement.

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