How Workplace Zero Tolerance Fails

Zero tolerance policies in the workplace are problematic. Their imposition upon job applicants is imperious when the offense is no longer on official records, or there is no correlation with the job’s requirements. The “one size fits all” paradigm appeals to disengaged managers who’d rather rely on a simplistic and stifling script from the HR department than consider the complexities of the violation.

A stark example of this shortsightedness are the Washington State Patrol civil service (not State Troopers) hiring standards that automatically disqualify a candidate for even one misdemeanor conviction involving DUI -- even if it was 30 years ago. Even IT geeks and backroom staff who may have had an infraction long ago are persona non grata. DUI is a scourge upon our driving safety, and should be dealt with as severely as the encompassing jurisdiction allows. However, if a misdemeanor offense occurred so long ago that it is no longer on the offender’s otherwise untainted criminal or full driving records, it should not be automatically disqualifying.

Unwavering obedience to ZT is unwise, since it undermines reasoning in inherently complex personnel issues. A more nuanced approach that examines exigencies, recidivism and respects people who have tamed their inner demons can protect the integrity and reputation of the hiring organization. Hiring policies simply shouldn’t subvert sound judgment.

Will Rogers once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Whose judgment do you trust more, someone who had a moral failing but learned from their mistakes, or someone who appears to be squeaky clean?

The former may have cultivated more depth of character as evidenced by subsequent decades of propriety and sobriety. Now skilled job applicants, it’s likely their brush with the dark, drunken side elicited a soul-searching, gut-wrenching reevaluation of life’s purpose and priorities. Conversely, the goody two-shoes may not yet have been tested in the crucible of life’s vagaries. Can we be sure they’re not teetering upon moral turpitude? This is a plausible question given that as recently as 2010 twenty percent of Americans admitted to drinking and driving in the preceding year -- imagine how high the percentage might be if we went back 10 years, 20 years… or, as WSP does, indefinitely. Then again, maybe the goody-goody is not virtuous but just got lucky -- studies show that, on average, a drunk driver will drive 80 times under the influence before their first arrest.  

If integrity and moral fiber are consistent with an organization’s reputation, then the person who has clearly turned over a new leaf, as evidence by a spotless subsequent record, deserves a second chance to pursue a career with even the most sanctimoniously stringent organization.

Adherents of ZT policies in the workplace highlight benefits like simplicity, clarity, deterrence, consistency and protecting the organization’s reputation. Actually, these benefits may be illusory:  

  • Simplicity: Engenders lazy management methods, doesn’t treat people as individuals
  • Clarity: Ideally, policies provide direction, but don’t dictate outcomes. Moreover, it’s not unclear to replace “never” with “within XX years.” Clarity sounds nice but often usurps discretion and judgment
  • Deterrence: This may work with current employees, but I doubt it will impact potential candidates who know not where their future lies.
  • Consistency:  Will employees, presuming their offense is not related to their job, be held to the same standards?  For example, if a misdemeanor DUI infraction is disqualifying for a candidate, will an employee be fired for it?
  • Reputation: Someone who has been through the indignity of a DUI conviction once, decades ago, may be more sympathetic to the public; after all, their character has been forged into steely resolve.

Clearly, these ZT “benefits” are riddled with complications for current and prospective employees. They might make for a good press release; they might even offer some modest moral comfort. They’re also devoid of nuance. Their inherent inflexibility impairs impartial judgment -- a crucial attribute of our essential humaneness, and without which draconian HR rules will intimidate those who have experienced life. As Ben Gerson states in his Harvard Business Review article, "The Reign of Zero Tolerance," “[S]implicity, clarity and purity can’t be the overriding goals of a system of standards and punishments.”

The WSP offers this justification for barring civil service applicants with an ancient misdemeanor DUI infraction: “Any conduct deemed to impede the ability of the WSP to effectively fulfill its responsibilities; causes a lessening of public confidence in the ability of the WSP to perform its mission; or does not equate with the high ethical standards expected by the public of law enforcement agencies, will result in disqualification.”

I can’t think of many things more detrimental to these values than the hiring standards for non-troopers (Troopers we expect to be perfect, I guess) that eliminate applicants whose reformed ways would likely engender public respect, if not admiration.  Indeed, if the troopers themselves had also exhibited some bad judgment along the way, and learned from it, perhaps they’d be more empathetic. Instead, sometimes they come across as annoying automatons who haughtily demand your license and registration after pulling you over for speeding… so I’ve heard.

Hiring standards in organizations like the WSP have become a euphemistic concoction that cloaks intolerant extremism. Isn’t there already enough of that going around? Ironically, their lazy policies are absent one vital attribute upon which public confidence is built -- sound judgment. And as Mr. Will Rogers intimated, that takes root in the mulch when experience outgrows the invasive weeds of bad judgment. 

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