Zero Tolerance Policies: Fortress or Paper Tiger?

Source: Robert M. Schwartz, Labor Notes, November 6, 2013

Bosses love zero tolerance policies. One arbitrator has called them “the last refuge of weak managers.” A zero tolerance policy provides that workers who commit a specified infraction will be immediately discharged with no consideration of the surrounding circumstances, the employee’s seniority, or the employee’s past record. Common zero tolerance offenses include positive drug tests, felony convictions, fighting, sexual harassment, failing to shut off equipment while repairing it, and incurring more than one motor vehicle accident within a limited period. If the union questions the policy, the employer is likely to cite contractual language giving it the right to issue rules and regulations. Overly broad zero tolerance policies can lead to grossly unfair punishments. …

…Labor arbitrators frequently rule that when a company policy conflicts with the contract, the policy is of no effect. For example, a zero tolerance policy might declare that anyone involved in a fight will be terminated no matter whether the employee was the aggressor or the victim. But if the employee was simply defending herself, did not use a weapon, and did not cause injury, an arbitrator will probably not sustain the employee’s discharge. Likewise, if an employee with a stellar record commits a minor infraction, just cause requires a penalty that will allow the employee to improve—despite the wording of a zero tolerance policy….