“What do you think of zero tolerance for Bully Bosses?”

Question: I am currently a student at Benedictine University completing my BSN degree. Zero Tolerance policies on Bullying is a debate project my colleagues are presenting. I represent the negative side to zero-tolerance policy. What are your views? Best regards. 

Cynthia B.
Sherman, Illinois

Answer: Dear Cynthia: Though I do a good deal of work assisting people who are victims of Bully Bosses at work, I don’t care much for a zero-tolerance policy regarding bullying at work, or zero-tolerance policies, in general. Here’s why:   

1. Because there is no set definition of “bullying,” to some extent “bullying is in the eye of the beholder.” That is, whether someone is a bully, a strict disciplinarian, overly passionate, or perhaps just had an awful, awful day, it is sometimes not clear, but instead a matter of perception, prior experiences, and personal tolerance. Perhaps there is an objective definition of “bully” that everyone agrees on, but I have never heard of it. Where there is such subjectivity, sometimes enforcement is done on a subjective – and unfair – basis, as well.  

2. To my mind, being a Bully Boss is not a one-time thing, but rather a continuing course of cruel conduct committed over time. For this reason, it seems to me that the words “one-time” and “bully” are actually inconsistent with each other. In the experiences my clients have shared with me about their Bully Bosses, it’s never been a “one-time” occurrence, and rarely if ever a “one-victim” situation. Rather, bullying is more of a mindset that exhibits itself over time, with several or more victims, and repeatedly. One “strike” is a problem; three strikes, “you are out.”      

3. Even though I am an employee advocate, I must acknowledge that sometimes, people just “lose it,” and it’s even happened to me. I may be a “softie,” but I do tend to forgive people for their first big mistake. I guess it is because – believe it or not – I have made a few big mistakes, myself. If there is someone among us who has not made a big mistake, he or she cannot be alive, or is not human. A very bad day does not make someone a “bully.” In fact, expressions of remorse, apology or regret can, in my mind, remove the term “bully,” so long as the same mistake does not happen time and time again. 

4. There is always a concern in me that zero-tolerance policies – with just a few exceptions – may be unfairly applied. I guess it is like the death penalty for murder: what happens if we make a mistake? Just as you can’t say “Oops, I am sorry” after you have given someone the death penalty, so, too, you can’t say “Oops, I am sorry” after you have ended someone’s promising career. “Zero tolerance” sounds impartial, fair and objective, but in my experience humans are often partial to their friends, unfair to those they do not like, and subjective in how they apply rules. I think that “zero tolerance” only amplifies the probability that a grave unfairness may take place. Reputational harm is usually lifelong, and so, so very difficult to overcome.

5. In limited circumstances, I might agree with zero tolerance, but only with significant safeguards to protect the innocent. There are some violations of societal rules that are more easily proven, without vagueness, and with substantial certainty, and truly heinous in nature. I would include child sexual abuse and physical violence in that category. It is only in those few instances that I would favor “zero tolerance,” and, too, only with significant safeguards to ensure that the innocent do not get unfairly charged or punished.  

Cynthia, I hope this helps you. Good luck in completing college, and in your nursing career. May I salute you for entering a wonderful and caring profession! 

Very, Very Best,
Al Sklover

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