When “Zero Tolerance” Yields Zero Results

The business of biotechnology comes with a built-in blessing/curse – the need to rapidly expand.  As new products gain approval and acceptance, biotechnology firms can enjoy demand surges that drive up revenue.  But with increased demand comes the need for a larger workforce.  That can create its own difficulties, as new hires bring new problems to the workplace.  Executives, managers and supervisors face challenges in training and maintaining order when workers are slow to adopt or follow company or societal rules.

 Zero Tolerance policies have become extremely popular, as employers strive to take a hard stand against workplace misconduct.  In Workforce Management magazine, author Samuel Greengard points out that the words zero tolerance “generate such a genuine feeling of empowerment.”  He asks, “What better way to control undesirable behavior?”

 If the undesirable behavior you’re trying to control is serious, threatening the welfare and safety of others, there is perhaps no better way to control it than a zero tolerance policy.  But according to social psychologist David Meyers, PhD, the threat of severe punishment works “only under ideal circumstances, when the punishment is strong, prompt and sure.”

 As employers look for ways to assure workplace safety and product quality, a growing number are tempted to institute zero tolerance policies for nearly any violation of company rules.  They may feel that the best way to avoid big violations is the threat of severe sanctions for even small misdeeds.  Is it?  Controlled scientific research indicates that it is not.

 As we discussed previously, the threat of severe punishment brings immediate, but temporary compliance with the rules.  We obey the speed limit when the police are around, then ‘put the pedal to the metal’ when they’re no longer in sight.  The threat of severe sanctions for small workplace violations has a similar effect.  People follow quality/safety regulations and act properly toward fellow employees when the boss is observing.  Later they return to doing what they want to do.

 In fact, as we discussed in the last post, misbehaving employees often don’t believe they’ve really done anything wrong.  This is because humans have shown, in study after study, a strong need to justify their actions.  We do this so we can continue to feel good about ourselves and avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.  According to eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson, ““Most of us want to believe that we are reasonable, decent folks who make wise decisions, do not behave immorally, and have integrity.” 

 This tendency to justify behavior has a significant downside.  Employees who justify wrong conduct often progress to bigger violations.  But self-justification cuts both ways.  It can have a substantial upside that is important to growing biotechnology companies.  Under the right circumstances, self-justification can actually help workers become better employees.  No zero-tolerance policy can accomplish that.

Studies have revealed that when under the right circumstances we choose to obey the rules, our natural tendency is to justify our conduct by believing more strongly in the rightness of the rules.   After all,’ if we’ve done something there must be a good reason for it!’  Since we want to preserve our self-image as good, rational people, we will actually come up with grounds to confirm the rightness of our behavior.  As we do this, we will become more committed to following the rule we just obeyed.

So, what makes the difference between policies that merely prevent misbehavior when the boss is watching and programs that actually help workers make progress?  The answer is as American as apple pie:  free choice.  “Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chose to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure,” wrote persuasion expert Robert Cialdini, PhD.

A zero tolerance policy and the threat of severe punishment give us strong outside pressure to follow the rules.  We know there will be serious consequences if we don’t.  We know why we’ve obeyed – to avoid the penalty.  But when sanctions for small violations of the rules are correspondingly small, employees who obey them will often feel they have done so voluntarily.  They will come to recognize reasons why their obedience was the right thing to do.  And they will tend to act in harmony with those rules again and again, strengthening their resolve each time.  Under these conditions, troublesome workers can begin to resemble model employees and model employees can become candidates for promotion.  

Growing life sciences companies need workers who can grow along with them.  Wide-ranging zero tolerance policies can never provide that.  But programs that provide minimal sanctions for small infractions can.  Wise executives will give serious thought to forming workplace policies that prevent dangerous situations while helping employees become superior workers and better people.

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One Response to “When “Zero Tolerance” Yields Zero Results”

  1. Mark Says:

    Nice post, Larry. I especially liked your conclusion. It is a very slippery slope for business leaders, but if the “top small workplaces” award the nonprofit I work for hosts each year has taught me anything, it’s that leaders can and do skirt that line, for greater workplace camaraderie and productivity, every day.

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