We had to lay off most of our mid-level managers, including our HR manager, to survive COVID. Before she left, she was about to revise our employee handbook. I’ve been tasked to handle this.

The problem—I work for three hardline managers. They never liked our former HR manager or how she handled things; they called her too accommodating. That’s part of why they showed her the door when they could have cut someone else.

They say our policies need to be clear-cut so our managers will know exactly how to handle situations. They don’t like the variance of our current policies, and say the “wiggle room” gives problem employees too much slack.

They say that in this employment market, we can have the cream of the crop of employees, and our employees need to know the consequences for their misbehavior.

They’ve given me marching orders to create strict zero-tolerance policies related to attendance problems, drug abuse, workplace violence and guns in the workplace, all areas in which we’ve had recent problems. They tell me zero-tolerance policies will make everything easier, streamline discipline, and make our company stronger.

I’m uneasy but am too nervous to argue. I did tell them I’d call you. They’ve been reading your newspaper column for thirty years and think you’ve “got your head on straight”. What do you say?


Zero-tolerance policies offer many benefits and possess some serious downsides.


Your company needs to treat employees consistently. If one manager terminates an employee for repeatedly arriving late to work, and other managers allow that behavior without consequences, you risk losing a wrongful termination lawsuit. This risk escalates if the employee terminated belongs to a group protected by federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination (such as age, race, sex, disability, or religion).


Your company needs to make employees aware of the consequences for problem behavior, so employees have fair warning that they may be disciplined or fired if they choose to engage in high-risk activities.


Zero-tolerance policies, however, can result in your company making a wrong decision. They lock employers in to terminations, regardless of the circumstances.

In one of the saddest instances, AutoZone fired Devin McLean, a twenty-three-year-old employee who saved his manager’s life. He did this by escaping out the back door, retrieving a legally registered pistol from his car and returning to yell “freeze” at a robber pointing a gun at his manager’s head as his manager kneeled in front of the safe. AutoZone fired McLean for bringing his gun into the workplace, and I thought they made the wrong call.

What happens if one of your best employees does something as courageous as McLean, but violates a zero-tolerance policy that handcuffs you into firing him?


Employers also falsely assume zero-tolerance policies give them the right to immediately and without risk fire employees who breach the policies. Not true. When an employee sues for wrongful termination, juries, courts and regulatory agencies conduct their own assessment for whether summary dismissal was fair. The zero-tolerance policy is a factor, but not the only one.

What works better? Suggest to your managers they add a clause to every policy that “violations of this policy may result in discipline up to and including termination, at management’s discretion”. Yes, you lose the definitive value of “zero-tolerance,” but you give management back decision-making control.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, and “Solutions”, (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Send your questions to her at, visit her @ or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

One thought on “Zero-tolerance: Can You Afford It?

  1. These are insightful comments on the benefits and drawbacks of zero-tolerance policies on a whole host of potential behaviors, misbehaviors, and misunderstandings in the workplace. From the context given by the question-poser, it sounds as if the managers who didn’t like the former HR manager for giving too much wiggle room (and paying too much attention, giving too much credence to employees’ complaints?) would like to make it easy to fire people. Excepts, as pointed out in the drawbacks, it can lock management into having to fire someone who is a valued employee when there are mitigating circumstances and other possibilities for resolving a s problematic situation. And it can come back to bite you in a wrongful termination lawsuit and with a finding in favor of the terminated employee. Thanks again for a balanced commentary!

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