We see it over and again: An organization is accused of egregious instances of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying at work, or similar mistreatment. The allegations are reported in the media, accompanied by the standard organizational response:
We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.
Zero tolerance. Got it. You guys are right on it.
At times, I’ll read a “zero tolerance” response in a news item and know that the organization in question practices anything but that.
Oh, these places might have zero tolerance splashed all over their employee handbooks, but in reality they don’t take it very seriously. Until they’re caught, of course.
I’m not an empirical researcher, but I’ll hypothesize that the zero-tolerance-on-paper organizations are frequently the same ones who invoke the rhetorical (not legal) “bad apple” defense when wrongful behaviors arise, i.e., we regret that a bad apple might have behaved in such a manner. As I wrote in 2017:
But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples.
Building and maintaining an organization that embraces human dignity is not easy. It takes good leadership and values that are practiced, rather than simply preached. By contrast, although zero tolerance may be an impressive-sounding phrase, all too often it is invoked in situations suggesting that the hard work of creating a healthy, fair-minded, and inclusive organization remains to be done.