“Zero-tolerance” rules are anything but absolute

Working eight feet from the ground on an aerial work platform, an ironworker, who for the purposes of this article will be named Kevin, was installing structural beams. Completing the task with the efficiency of a seasoned veteran, Kevin believed he was working safely.

In the next moment, however, Kevin realized he did not tie-off his harness to the lift, a rule he knows the company branded “zero-tolerance.” Just as he was correcting his momentary lapse in judgement, the new supervisor approached Kevin’s workspace. For breaching a rule that is known to be an “absolute”, the untested supervisor immediately terminated Kevin for unsafe work.

Many companies have “zero-tolerance” or “absolute” rules that carry immediate disciplinary measures because the effect of breaking that rule could be disastrous. For instance, if Kevin fell from a height of eight feet, he could sustain a concussion, a broken neck or worse. Other rules that typically carry significant discipline include failing to: wear personal protective equipment (steel-toed boots, gloves, eye protection and a reflective vest) while working; abide by tag-out procedures for equipment and erected scaffold; properly secure a load to be lifted; or arrive for work sober. Under certain conditions, any breach of these rules could result in termination.

There is no question that to effectively and efficiently manage a worksite, contractors must have rules and policies outlining best practices. Without rules, chaos would ensue: workers would get hurt and managers would become autocratic. Nevertheless, rules and policies in practice are only as good as the people who administer them. A contractor may have the best and clearest rules with which to govern the worksite, but that matters little when the supervisor abuses her authority by showing favouritism, choosing to follow rules as a matter of convenience, or doling out discipline that does not correlate with the employee’s alleged offence.

The ironworker scenario provides a clear case of over-reaction by a new supervisor who does not know the employees in her charge or understand the company’s culture. Had the supervisor asked Kevin about his conduct, he would have learned that Kevin’s grandmother passed away the previous night. With knowledge comes the ability to make an informed, reasoned decision: Kevin’s years of service and clean disciplinary record — to say nothing of natural justice — afford him the right to explain his actions.

As in any case, justification for discipline is dependent upon an investigation. If the mitigating factor of grandma’s passing did not exist, and within six months Kevin had received both a written warning and suspension for “forgetting” to tie-off, a termination might well be justified. The difference between these circumstances and what actually transpired, of course, is that the termination would not have been based on an “absolute” rule or the whims of an uninformed supervisor, but the result of Kevin’s failure to follow clear, articulated and objective instruction. In a word, “absolute” rules are anything but absolute.

Contractors have spent years cultivating safe, productive work environments. In fact, endemic to safety philosophies is the belief that all accidents are preventable. Safety will always be a work in progress: miscalculations, misjudgements and mistakes occur every single day and managers must remain vigilant in ensuring work is safely completed. However, if proactive management of that work translates into a dictatorial culture that elicits (paralyzing) fear from employees, the management team has done a disservice to the company. No longer are employees concerned about production levels or real safety; their focus and energy is spent on keeping their jobs, and possibly covering up accidents for fear of reprisal. Management of this persuasion not only poisons the workplace culture, it can cause significant stress and anxiety in workers’ lives which may present as substance abuse, violent outbursts, increased absenteeism or resignation.

There are a number of valid business reasons for utilizing progressive discipline when safety infractions occur. Progressive discipline would have given Kevin the opportunity to correct his undesirable behaviour before management applied increasingly tougher penalties should Kevin continually disregard or forget to tie-off his harness.

Some business reasons for using progressive discipline are:
•    An employee that has made a mistake will have the opportunity to reform. It is far less expensive to retain existing employees than to recruit, orientate and (sometimes intensively) train new prospects. 
•    Production inevitably suffers while searching for new employees. 
•    A reliable, long-term employee is often flexible in terms of the multiple tasks he can perform with little or no supervision. 
•    A reasonable employer who treats safety as paramount will attract and retain the best and brightest tradespersons in the industry. People follow leaders who place safety above profit.

While safety has become part of the fabric of many workplace cultures, education remains an important aspect of ensuring workers go home to their families at the end of the day. Using “absolute” or “zero-tolerance” terminology to describe a rule serves a practical purpose when the point is to stress its magnitude. 

Like the new supervisor, too often “absolute” is interpreted to mean contravention of that rule will result in immediate termination. At that point, “zero-tolerance” has impinged upon reasonability and rendered once-effective tools worthless.