Zero Tolerance Policies Should be Called “Don’t Blame Me” Policies

While I understand the appeal of zero tolerance policies in that they allow difficult decisions about behavior to be dispatched easily and quickly, the decision to expel a child from school or to send someone to prison can be blamed on the policy, not the teacher, cop or administrator.  I have an intense dislike for the default ZTP that is becoming too popular and increasingly leading to ridiculous decisions.  Take for example the recent incident where a high school girl was called by her classmate to come pick her up from a party because the friend realized that she was too intoxicated to drive herself home. What she got for doing an honorable thing is arrested for underage drinking due to the fact that the police said that they had no choice but to report her, guilt by association I suspect.  Two others were reported last week, one involving an employee intervening in an assault in the parking lot of Wal-Mart and another in an attempted robbery of a convenience store. The typical response in print, TV and radio is that zero tolerance has run amuck! When I started ADI, we had only one policy (and still do) relative to mistakes, misconduct or the like – “Each decision will be handled on its own merit.” 

I never wanted to hear a manager say, “That’s the policy.”  We are all human beings here.  In this company we understand the effects of behavioral consequences on people’s behavior.  I wanted managers who were knowledgeable enough about behavior to make a decision which they knew would help the person deal with similar situations effectively in the future. Since we are all unique individuals, there is no policy that is appropriate for all situations. Policy is usually the safeguard for delivering a difficult message usually involving negative feedback or punishment. 

The behaviors involved and the context in which they occur all need to be considered before deciding what to do in all these situations.  Quit looking for a “one size fits all” solution.  There isn’t one.  Since most companies seem to think that the only one way to get people to do right is to punish the offenders, it leads to these ridiculous decisions. Typically, most managers and supervisors come to see that these policies are wrong for the situation.  As the policeman said in the case above of the high school student, “We have no choice.”  I think on the contrary we do. Policy should be used as a guide, not as an absolute.  Policies should not use the words, everybody, anybody or all, as in “anybody caught doing X, will be…”  Begin instead with, “The policy is that…  Now let me hear the details.”  This is not about giving people a second chance.  It is about how can I help the person or persons involved change their behavior in future situations.

You might also be interested in the video Do Policies, Memos, and Safety Signage Work?


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.