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November 13 2017

How Zero Tolerance Polices Backfire in the Age of #MeToo

by Patrice Lee Onwuka

The list of celebrities and business leaders accused of sexual harassment allegations continues to grow and this weekend, hundreds of women took the #MeToo movement from the social media world to the streets of Hollywood.

As society grapples with how to promote safer work spaces for men and women to interact, there may be a knee-jerk reaction to turn to “zero tolerance” policies which sack perpetrators of any sexual harassment.

The heart is in the right place, but a zero-tolerance policy may not be the silver bullet to maintaining a harassment-free environment.

In Quartz, a writer offers an alternative view by suggesting that zero tolerance policies are actually terrible for women for a few reasons.

First, the severity of the punishment (a person losing his or her job) may deter women from reporting harassment – especially when it’s a low-level offense:

“The problem with zero tolerance is it’s very binary,” says organizational psychology expert Liane Davey. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not at all binary.”

Sexual harassment includes sexual invitations, touching, and sexually suggestive comments. None of these things are acceptable in the workplace. Yet they are pervasive. And, sometimes, the people enacting such behavior are valuable colleagues. Yes, even “good guys” can behave inappropriately.

Second, as we’ve seen with zero-tolerance rules in schools, there are harmful unintended consequences. One such consequence is the chilling effect on the interactions between men and women.

In male-dominated industries like technology or engineering, you don’t want to lock women out of opportunities because their bosses, mentors, or sponsors want to avoid alone-time with them for fear of an allegation:

“One size fits all punishment for behavior tends to not do a very good job of getting at the underlying issue,” says Davey. “I think many men need to be informed about how they’re inadvertently creating discomfort, making women uncomfortable, adding gender politics into the workplace where they don’t belong.”

In addition, firing violators misses a valuable teaching moment for others.

So, what is the solution? Victims must be encouraged to call it out and do so quickly:

Davey suggests that women respond to smaller instances of inappropriate behavior by calling it out the very first time it happens, letting the colleague know what the offending action was and telling them that it shouldn’t be repeated... When well-meaning men are inadvertently offensive, making them more self-aware should prevent repeat offenses. Of course, if the behavior doesn’t stop, or if it’s on the more serious end of the spectrum, then it’s absolutely necessary to fire perpetrators.

Saying “speak up” is easier said than done, but that’s where bystanders have a role to play in calling out inappropriate conduct as well. Repeat offenders rightly deserve the boot.

It’s unfortunate that sexual harassment and assault is still a regular occurrence in too many workplaces.

We have to find ways to protect the women – and men – who get harassed, but overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all rules that bring down the hammer on every infraction, may do more damage in the workplace than the faux security they bring.

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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