Zero-tolerance pitfalls


As we’re not large enough to have a human resources manager, our office manager handles HR paperwork. She’s “hard line” and says we need to overhaul our personnel policies because the current ones allow too much variance in how each manager handles problems. She insists we need to implement strict zero-tolerance policies related to drug abuse, workplace violence and guns in the workplace, all areas in which we’ve had recent problems. Although several of us on the management team are hesitant, she insists it would make everything easier, streamline discipline, and, in the long run, improve our organization. Is she right?


Yes and no. Your managers do need to treat employees consistently. If one of your managers terminates an employee for repeatedly arriving late to work, and other managers allow that behavior without consequences, you risk losing a wrongful termination lawsuit. This risk escalates if the employee terminated is a member of a legally protected group, due to his or her sex, race, disability or other characteristic.

Zero-tolerance policies, however, can lock you as an employer into making a wrong decision. In 2013, I wrote about Devin McLean, a 23 year-old AutoZone employee who saved his manager’s life. He did this by escaping out the back door, retrieving a legally registered pistol from his car and returning to yell “freeze” at a robber pointing a gun at his manager’s head as his manager kneeled in front of the safe. AutoZone fired McLean for bringing his gun into the workplace and I thought they made the wrong call.

Employers also falsely assume zero-tolerance policies give them the right to immediately and without risk fire employees who breach the policies. Not true. When an employee sues for wrongful termination, juries, courts and regulatory agencies conduct their own assessment for whether summary dismissal was fair. The zero-tolerance policy is a factor, but not the only one.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at


One Comment on “Zero-tolerance pitfalls

  1. To an extent, the idea of zero-tolerance is anachronistic. Courts & agencies are increasingly emphasizing & focusing on “interactive discussions” among employers & employees. In many situations, to take a zero-tolerance approach, or forgo the interactive discussion, puts a company at risk, when all it might take is a short conversation about the situation. Exceptions include many (not all) thefts, injury or potential injury to self or others, possessing weapons or illegal substances.


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