Diversity and Inclusion

Should you adopt a zero-tolerance policy to harassment?

EW Group consultant Teresa Norman looks at what zero tolerance policies are, what the law says, and why your organisation should consider taking this approach. Teresa is a Diversity and Talent Management Consultant whose specialisms include policy development, research, coaching, facilitation and talent management.

No one wants to be bullied, discriminated against or harassed. However, very rarely does anyone think they have behaved in such a damaging way and every manager dreads receiving a complaint. Ignoring the complaint isn’t an option though, and in practice it is only likely to make things worse. But without an organisational framework in place it can be difficult for a manager to work out what to do next. If there is no strong direction or guidance from the top or even worse, there seems to be an acceptance that this is simply normal banter, the manager is left very alone in deciding what to do.

So, here is our view on why you need a zero-tolerance anti-harassment framework, supported by anti-harassment training, to create a positive and productive workplace.


What is a zero tolerance policy against harassment, bullying, and discrimination?

Zero tolerance policies against harassment, bullying and discrimination dictate that any allegations are taken seriously and handled confidentially and sympathetically.

Records of incidents should be made, and action against those accused of misconduct should be taken only with the accuser’s explicit consent. This might involve informal mediation conducted by the employer, the following of grievance procedures as set out in the company HR policy, or even reporting the matter to the police. Disciplinary action, dismissal, or legal action may result.

The aim of zero-tolerance policies is to encourage staff members who have experienced harassment, bullying and discrimination to come forward, make it more difficult for harassers and bullies to act with impunity, and allow remedial action to take place as quickly and effectively as possible. They not only serve to stop bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace, but also promote a better, healthier office culture, where poor behaviour is less likely to occur.

EW Group’s own Staff Handbook includes the ACAS definition of bullying and harassment, lists examples of bullying or harassing behaviour and clearly sets out the action to be taken by employees and line managers in the event of a complaint. The policy states that no one will be victimised for making a complaint but that if a complaint is made vexatiously or maliciously, formal action will be taken in line with the disciplinary procedure. We can help you to draft or update your own policy.


Why do zero tolerance policies matter?

At the most basic level, businesses are communities of people, which means they are just as susceptible to occurrences of harassment, bullying and discrimination as any place where people operate alongside one another.

Poor behaviour and negative interpersonal relationships are serious transgressions. Staff must be able to work and succeed without having to navigate negativity and prejudice. This sort of adverse behaviour impacts on staff mental health and well-being and ultimately on business performance as it hinders the benefits of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Experience has shown us that the many workplaces that have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to harassment, bullying and discrimination have got it right.

What does the law say about harassment, bullying and discrimination?

Harassment, bullying and discrimination based on age, race, sex or disability is unlawful in the UK. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a responsibility to protect their staff from these kinds of misconduct as part of their health and safety and industrial relations responsibilities, and criminal proceedings can be brought against both the guilty party and negligent employers who failed in their duty to protect.

As a result, choosing not to act when it comes to allegations of harassment, bullying and discrimination is simply not an option for businesses.

Do zero-tolerance approaches go too far?

It is sometimes argued that zero-tolerance approaches to workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination go too far. How true is this?

– These policies may be considered too harsh

One of the most common complaints is that zero-tolerance approaches prescribe disciplinary measures that are too harsh for the complaint. This is usually based on the idea that remarks and actions are simply meant to be funny, but this ignores the real mental toll that incidents can have on victims.

What’s more, bullying, harassment and discrimination are often deeply rooted in power asymmetries, hindering workplace efforts to promote equality, diversity and inclusion and stopping businesses and employees from making their full contribution. No one can be at their best in an atmosphere of fear.

– They may be open to exploitation

Another line of criticism comes from the perception that zero-tolerance approaches are open to exploitation by aggrieved employees who making false allegations. This ignores the fact that the majority of complaints are indeed real, and that dismissing them denies justice to individuals who may have suffered in silence for months or even years.

A 2018 survey by the Employment Lawyers Association found that 64% of employer lawyers and 87% of employee lawyers said that less than 5% of sexual harassment claims they handled turned out to be false. Learn more about statistics and the impact of sexual harassment in our workplace guide, with steps for preventing it in your organisation.


The reality of a zero tolerance approach

Both these arguments ignore that zero-tolerance approaches are grounded in mediation, information gathering and fairness. They are not reactionary and work in a way that ensures all parties are given a chance to give their version of events.

We know that zero-tolerance policies work, in conjunction with strong messages from the top and clear communication of the policy. They are vital in supporting managers as they deal with one of the most challenging experiences of management.

Learn more about our anti-harassment and discrimination training, or contact our expert team for more information on how we can help you with sensitive and effective mediation.

Further reading on preventing harassment & bullying at work

How to prevent and stop sexual harassment in the workplace
What are micro-behaviours and how do they impact inclusive cultures?
Racism at work – How to stop discrimination in the workplace
How to be an ally at work
Importance of respect in the workplace

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