Can “Zero Tolerance” Come Anywhere Near Zero?

Having spent a career studying how we use words to convey meaning, I wasn’t surprised to see that the term “zero tolerance,” no matter how emphatically expressed, is being used to mean different things by different people. A case in point is the Writer’s Guild of America West’s letter to its members published in Variety. Here is an excerpt:

Zero tolerance means that every claim of harassment or discrimination is taken seriously, and the investigation of every claim is thorough and transparent. Zero tolerance does not mean the absence of due process, or that there is a one-size-fits-all punishment for every incident.

This paragraph exemplifies one of the problems with the term “zero tolerance” as an overarching guideline for handling sexual offense, harassment and misconduct. Zero tolerance from the vantage point of the WGAW definition means taking claims seriously and responding with transparency.

This is certainly a good thing. Yet, they point out that members of the WGAW won’t be expelled for offenses or crimes as the union does not act as a judge or jury. One might argue that this is hardly zero tolerance — that you can’t have it both ways.

We might reasonably ask if using the term “zero tolerance” in this manner is misleading. As I’ve argued below with regard to the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work, until we develop commonly held definitions of sexual offense, harassment and abuse, zero tolerance policies have little meaning — they refer more to process than to specific actions and thus have more bark than bite.

Clearly, more work needs to be done in determining to what words and actions real zero tolerance should apply.  Otherwise the term will go on sounding good and meaning very little.

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