Workplace Violence & the Myth of Zero Tolerance

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: February 21st, 2012
Topics: Workplace Violence |

Zero tolerance has become the policy of choice for dealing with workers who engage in workplace violence. Zero tolerance means that workers who commit or threaten workplace violence are subject to immediate and automatic dismissal with no second chances. The policy has a lot of appeal because it’s a claim to the moral high ground and makes a company feel like it’s taking a real stand. But in the real world, principle and practical policy aren’t always the same thing. Here’s the problem with zero tolerance and how to implement a more realistic disciplinary policy without sacrificing your moral position on workplace violence.

(Click here for a Model Workplace Violence Disciplinary Policy that you can adapt.)

Is Zero Tolerance Enforceable?

Few would argue with the logic of treating workplace violence more severely than other infractions. By effectively removing workplace violence from the realm of your organization’s progressive disciplinary policy, zero tolerance raises red flags at unionized workplaces and typically requires the consent and negotiation of the union.

But adopting a zero tolerance policy isn’t necessarily a no-brainer even if the union is on board. Simply put, zero tolerance is often too inflexible to implement. The policy works best in the most serious cases of workplace violence involving physical assault. After all, it’s hard to defend giving workers who attack co-workers a second chance.

The problem is that workplace violence often takes more subtle forms including threats and verbal/mental abuse. The severe penalties provided by zero tolerance may be too harsh for these offenses, especially if they occur on an isolated basis.

In addition, there may be mitigating circumstances or reasons that if they don’t justify at least explain a worker’s violent behavior. For example, maybe the worker was acting in self-defense or just engaging in horseplay. A company should be free to consider all of these things when deciding what to do and should not be boxed in by a zero tolerance policy.


A pipe worker picks up a piece of iron pipe and swings it at a fellow crew member’s head stopping at the very last second. Everybody realizes that it’s a joke, albeit a stupid and dangerous one. The company thinks the worker should be warned and perhaps suspended for the prank but considers termination too harsh. After all, the worker has had a stellar record to this point. But the zero tolerance policy calls for immediate termination of workers who engage in or threaten violence against other workers. So the company has to choose between ignoring the policy and ignoring the offense.

It might seem easy for a company to simply ignore the policy and give the worker a break. But that could lead to unforeseen legal consequences: Letting one worker get away with an offense undermines the legitimacy of a zero tolerance policy and makes it harder to enforce on future occasions. “Consistency of enforcement is one of the key factors a court or arbitrator looks at in deciding whether to support a disciplinary action,” explains a Chicago attorney.

How to Tailor a Workable Policy

All workers need to recognize that workplace violence is a safety issue and one that comes with accountability. But the endless kaleidoscope of variables that affect the culpability of an act or threat of violence requires a flexible disciplinary that allows for but doesn’t require termination for acts of violence, including first offenses. That’s why our Model Policy gives the employer discretion to impose any penalty, including immediate termination, appropriate under the circumstances.