“Zero tolerance” sexual harassment policies are terrible for women

“The problem with zero tolerance is it’s very binary.”
“The problem with zero tolerance is it’s very binary.”
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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In the wake of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, countless organizations have hastily insisted they have a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment.  “Employers must adopt a zero-tolerance policy and sack the perpetrators, however valuable to the business,” wrote solicitor Camilla Palmer in The Guardian.

Zero tolerance sounds like a great idea, in theory. In practice, this simplistic approach ignores the unfortunate reality that a spectrum of acts can be classed as sexual harassment. If women worry that any offense, no matter how minor, could lead to someone losing their job, then small but troubling instances of sexual harassment could go unreported.

“The problem with zero tolerance is it’s very binary,” says organizational psychology expert Liane Davey. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not at all binary.”

The concern is not that men (for it’s typically men who commit sexual harassment) will face unjust punishment. Rather, it’s that women won’t have a safe workplace if there’s no means of preventing low-level harassment without resorting to firing.

Sexual harassment includes sexual invitations, touching, and sexually suggestive comments. None of these things are acceptable in the workplace. Yet they are pervasive. And, sometimes, the people enacting such behavior are valuable colleagues. Yes, even “good guys” can behave inappropriately.

“As long as we continue to make it between bad guys and good guys, as long as we keep on doing that, we’re never going to get anywhere,” New York University psychology professor Niobe Way previously told Quartz.

I know of older men who are seemingly unaware that fawning over a colleague’s appearance is inappropriate, and younger, good-looking men who don’t seem to realize that yes, their hand resting on a woman’s knee or lower back at after-work drinks can be deeply uncomfortable. I don’t want these men fired: They can be great mentors and friends. I do want them to stop.

“One size fits all punishment for behavior tends to not do a very good job of getting at the underlying issue,” says Davey. “I think many men need to be informed about how they’re inadvertently creating discomfort, making women uncomfortable, adding gender politics into the workplace where they don’t belong.”

Strict, severe punishment could also lead to men being afraid to associate with women—as we’ve seen in Silicon Valley, where some men have used sexual harassment scandals as an excuse not to have solo meetings or lunches with women. Avoiding women is a form of discrimination in its own right, and hardly innocuous. But even worrying about associating with women could be seriously detrimental to both men and women’s careers and workplace relations.

Davey suggests that women respond to smaller instances of inappropriate behavior by calling it out the very first time it happens, letting the colleague know what the offending action was and telling them that it shouldn’t be repeated. If it happens again, depending on the severity of the offense, women should feel comfortable giving a stronger admonishment or bringing in a manager or human resources for support. The goal can be to reinforce company policy or educate the perpetrator, rather than immediately firing them. When well-meaning men are inadvertently offensive, making them more self-aware should prevent repeat offenses. Of course, if the behavior doesn’t stop, or if it’s on the more serious end of the spectrum, then it’s absolutely necessary to fire perpetrators.

People who witness inappropriate behavior, rather than directly experiencing it, should also feel confident stepping in. “In many case, the witness to these things is more empowered than the person who is victimized. Especially if power is involved, there’s a challenging dynamic for the victim to raise the issue,” says Davey. “I strongly encourage people to stop witnessing these things and not saying anything.”

The importance of helping men become more self-aware should never be used as an excuse to dismiss concerns about sinister behavior. Sexual harassment can be incredibly insidious and shaped by subtle context. It can involve staring, getting too close, breathing on someone, stroking an arm, licking lips, and all manner of creepy behavior where the malicious intent is only truly obvious to those present.

“Someone’s perception is their reality, so hear them out,” says Davey. Though it’s great if the perpetrator can listen and understand why their behavior made someone uncomfortable, they shouldn’t need to understand in order to stop when asked. “They should be motivated to change their behavior to make others comfortable,” she adds.

Truly malicious sexual harassers are more common than many would like to believe—and they should be fired. But such perpetrators have been able to get away with their behavior because they act within a cultural environment that treats less severe sexual harassment as tolerable, or even funny. Those who unthinkingly form part of that backdrop—who inadvertently sexual harass without considering why their behavior is harmful—need told to change their ways. Only then will the intentional abusers become all the more apparent.