Awareness and Remembrance, In the News

Everything Wrong with Zero Tolerance Policies & Why Progressive Discipline is the Future

August 27, 2020

News stories following athletes accused of domestic violence flow like clockwork: after allegations surface and gain traction, players’ affiliated teams swiftly announce pre-emptive firings.  Immediately, teams absolve themselves of any responsibility in rehabilitating the player, capped with an opportunity to tout their “zero tolerance” policies.  Meanwhile, athletes are left to independently confront their actions and navigate their rehabilitation without any support from an organization that was once incredibly important to them. 


Of course, this series of events are not unique to professional sports.  In various industries that are under much less public scrutiny, employers regularly engage in “zero tolerance” actions when handling perpetrators.  However, ongoing research has challenged the effectiveness of these policies in providing safer work environments and preventing harassment and violence.  While perpetrators of domestic violence must do the heavy lifting in correcting their behaviour, employers’ and coworkers’ support can push perpetrators to address their behaviour faster and maintain those improvements.
Abandoning employees at a crucial moment when they most need guidance sets a troubling precedent.  While organizations are quick to denounce individuals’ abusive behaviour when it becomes a public liability, very few will show accountability in helping correct it.  In doing so, we normalize domestic violence and the taboo around it.  After all, domestic violence is not “my problem”, or “the team’s problem”.  When we make it a private matter to be resolved exclusively between the abuser and victim while everyone else quietly looks away, we discourage victims from bringing their abuse to light, and we discourage those using abusive behaviour from reaching out for help to change.
Zero tolerance policies are well intentioned but they discourage abusers from valuing opportunities for accountability and rehabilitation.  Abusers are justified in feeling that any positive changes in their behaviour will not be rewarded: often they remain ostracized and abandoned regardless of how much they learn and how hard they work to correct their behaviour.  When abusers are permanently treated as villains without anyone invested in their behavioural progress, why not embrace that role?  New York Times opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig explained this so eloquently: “There’s just something unsustainable about an environment that demands constant atonement but actively disdains the very idea of forgiveness.”

It’s time then that we replace zero tolerance workplace policies with a progressive discipline program.  Alternatively called “corrective discipline” or “constructive discipline”, this more humanizing approach centres on customized stages of learning and change.  Progressive discipline programs require careful evaluation, planning, and implementation, marked by expectations and actions tailored to the individual.  In this model, employers are supportive and engaged in disciplining employees towards a shared outcome of accountability and positive change.
Employees who are abusive become motivated to correct their behaviour for the reward of a second chance.  Meanwhile, colleagues gain confidence in their workplaces’ ability to appropriately address employee problems in the organization.  The communal investment in creating a safer workplace builds a greater sense of trust and community within the organization.
Here are sample stages and actions in a sample progressive discipline program:

Level 1 – Employee’s inappropriate behaviour becomes known and employee shows willingness to improve

• Employee is ineligible for promotion
• Employee must undergo mandatory counselling
• Remedial human rights or conflict coaching
• Introduction of probation period to improve performance

Level 2 – Employee shows limited or slow improvement, or regresses on Level 1 behavioural progress

• Demotion
• Employee must undergo mandatory counselling
• Employee must undergo mandatory education or training
• Suspension without pay
• Complaint letter is sent to a regulatory body or professional association
• Work assignment, appointment, or location change


Level 3 – Employee shows no progress in behaviour or attitude

• Employee is removed from the premises and will be issued trespassing order if they appear
• Employee faces a “no-rehire” blackout period 
• Termination or contract cancellation