Are Zero-Tolerance Harassment Policies Effective?

Zero-Tolerance Harassment Policies

Recently, I was facilitating a course on anti-harassment and was asked if I supported zero tolerance harassment policies.  Frankly I think I surprised myself as much as the rest of the class when I vehemently responded, “absolutely not.”


Before we go any further, let’s define what a zero-tolerance policy means.  It does not mean that organizations tolerate inappropriate behavior.  In my book, zero-tolerance means that any employee who violates a harassment policy will be terminated.  Is that really a bad thing?  Yes, and here’s why.  Zero tolerance policies can:


  • Negatively impact inclusion efforts. The best way to build an inclusive workplace is to encourage people of different ages, genders, races, and religions to work together.  If the organization promotes a culture of fear around diversity conversations, individuals won’t learn how to effectively work together.
  • Have a chilling effect on reporting. Often when conducting investigations, we hear things like: “This has happened before, but I didn’t say anything because I did want to see anyone lose their job.”  As an employer, you want employees to know that they can come to you and appropriate corrective action will be taken.  Not that if they file a complaint, people will be fired.
  • Discourage thorough investigations. Taking the time to thoroughly investigate a complaint is always the right thing to do.  It’s impossible to make an informed decision without understanding the context or the situation.  Zero-tolerance policies can result in knee jerk reactions or an expectation that termination is the only acceptable resolution.
  • Limit learning opportunities. Some of the best learning opportunities result from the most difficult situations.  Talented leaders leverage the opportunity that comes with a complaint to educate employees and improve the workplace.  After all, if we can’t have a conversation about what is inappropriate or offensive and why, how are we going to learn how to work well together?

Are there times when termination is the right choice?  Absolutely, especially for repeat, grievous, physical, intimidating, and intentionally offensive actions.  Those behaviors have no place in the workplace and, when verified, should result in termination.


Working effectively with others is an ongoing learning experience.  It’s often messy and confusing.  As humans, we certainly aren’t going to get it right every time.  What we should be is genuine, caring, and able to learn from our many mistakes.

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Proactive HR