Can “Zero Tolerance” Come Anywhere Near Zero?

Having spent a career studying how we use words to convey meaning, I wasn’t surprised to see that the term “zero tolerance,” no matter how emphatically expressed, is being used to mean different things by different people. A case in point is the Writer’s Guild of America West’s letter to its members published in Variety. Here is an excerpt:

Zero tolerance means that every claim of harassment or discrimination is taken seriously, and the investigation of every claim is thorough and transparent. Zero tolerance does not mean the absence of due process, or that there is a one-size-fits-all punishment for every incident.

This paragraph exemplifies one of the problems with the term “zero tolerance” as an overarching guideline for handling sexual offense, harassment and misconduct. Zero tolerance from the vantage point of the WGAW definition means taking claims seriously and responding with transparency.

This is certainly a good thing. Yet, they point out that members of the WGAW won’t be expelled for offenses or crimes as the union does not act as a judge or jury. One might argue that this is hardly zero tolerance — that you can’t have it both ways.

We might reasonably ask if using the term “zero tolerance” in this manner is misleading. As I’ve argued below with regard to the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work, until we develop commonly held definitions of sexual offense, harassment and abuse, zero tolerance policies have little meaning — they refer more to process than to specific actions and thus have more bark than bite.

Clearly, more work needs to be done in determining to what words and actions real zero tolerance should apply.  Otherwise the term will go on sounding good and meaning very little.

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“Did I Do Enough?” What Most Women (And Likely Clinton) Have Asked Themselves

Countless women have reported the discomfort and guilt they’ve felt over the years before #MeToo allowed them to speak out and speak up.  Lingering self-doubt and self-blame are part of the reason why so many women have come forward to identify sexual abusers.  But everywhere there are women and men who have not reported or fired a person accused of being offensive, harassing or abusive toward women.

Yet, here we are dumping on Hillary Clinton — a convenient target.  Her decision about not firing an advisor happened before this period of expressed outrage and serial firing.  What’s interesting is how many people now know exactly what they would have done in her shoes.  They’re disappointed or angry,  blaming a woman while a man who has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct sits happily in the Oval Office — no doubt amused.

Let’s be honest with ourselves.  For years women have had to deal with sexual misconduct on their own or with little help.  They tried to downplay their gender in male dominated fields and speaking up about offense was risky.  There were no guidelines.  It was understood that your career was on the line.  I can’t help but wonder if the women and men now pointing at Hillary with “disgust” spoke up about harassment and worse.  Did they do it in 100% of cases, 92%, 78%, 15%?

It’s easier to blame Hillary Clinton.  Trump does it all the time for all sorts of things.  She’s down.  So why not slap her again?  Is that what we really want?  Or is that what many in the media want?

If we’re going to stop sexual offense, harassment and misconduct, it’s going to take more than blaming women who didn’t have a powerful #MeToo movement around when they were trying to crack the glass ceiling.  Sure, maybe some of us would have been more outspoken than they were or fired some people if in a position to do so.  It’s easy to think so.  Without all the facts, it’s hard to say.  One thing we do know – and should remember – is that blaming women for not doing what we are somewhat more able to do now is taking the wrong track back to the same old station.



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Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (Draft 2)

Since I first introduced the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work —  SSMW (see blow below), I’ve done some additional work. Here is the latest:

SPECTRUM OF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT AT WORK (SSMW) — Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business (Draft 2)

Decisions about which category a behavior falls into depend on the situation, tone of delivery and nonverbal behaviors. The spectrum is not intended to be a set of cut-and-dried categories. It’s a blueprint for organizations – a way to start talking about levels of offensiveness that can contribute to a hostile work climate as well as what is and isn’t sexual misconduct toward women. Additional examples can be added and some existing ones moved by groups, divisions and organizations making the spectrum work for them.

Non-offensive (Common remarks on such things as hair style and dress): “You look nice today,” “I like your haircut,” “Nice outfit,” “That’s a good color on you,” “You look lovely.”

Awkward/Mildly Offensive (Comments involving or implying gender distinctions unfavorable to women): “You would say that as a woman,” “I suppose it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind;” “We can’t speak frankly around you women anymore.”

Offensive (Gender-insensitive or superior manner): Holding a woman’s arm while talking to her; uninvited hugs; patronizing, dismissive or exclusionary behavior; making stereotypical jokes about women, blondes, brunettes, red-heads, etc.; implying or stating that women are distracted by family.

Highly Offensive (Intentionally denigrating): Joking or implications about a woman’s intellect or skills being limited due to her gender; labels like “ice queen” or “female mafia;” comments on physical attributes used to embarrass, insult or demean.

Evident Sexual Misconduct (Usually crude or physically intrusive): Looking a woman up and down in a sexually suggestive manner; grabbing, unwelcome holding, touching or kissing; ignoring a woman’s expressed disinterest in a personal or intimate relationship; crude jokes that demean women; describing women with such terms as “slut” or “frigid.”

Egregious Sexual Misconduct (Typically involves coercion, sexual abuse, or assault): Overt sexual behavior while a woman is present; pressing against a woman suggestively; threatening or implying career damage to a woman who refuses to engage in sex or sexual behavior; forcing or coercing a woman to have sex.

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The Women’s March — Making Respect And Equality Stick

As women marched yesterday for greater respect, representation and equality, it was difficult to not hear them. Yet, President Trump tweeted credit for the last twelve months of his administration. He invited women to march in celebration of his economic policies. Rather than congratulate women for their peaceful expression of democracy and exquisite determination to elicit change, he did what those women abhor — he ignored them and their message.  The president’s actions reflected two types of dysfunctional behaviors commonly used to demean the contributions of women — patronizing and exclusionary patterns of talk.

But let’s not dwell on that. It was not surprising. What we should do is celebrate the women who were marching. Two of our nieces were there. It made me smile to see them and young women recognizing that this time, this time indeed, we need to make respect and equality for women stick.

We can’t take for granted that women before us got the job done. This is a job that will not be done for many years to come. It will only get done if we keep at it. That will require not allowing ourselves to be splintered by false schisms as was the case with the Mommy Wars years ago that pitted working women against stay-at-home moms as if they were two distinct groups. That was a false dichotomy. Women should be wary of such efforts to create “cat fights.” Men don’t fall neatly into groups. Women don’t either. Yesterday was a tribute to that fact.


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Defining and Responding to Sexual Misconduct

Here is an interview on AirTalk KPCC with host Alex Cohen, guests Michele Goldsmith, chair of the labor and employment division of LA-based law firm Bergman, Dacy, Goldsmith, and myself.

Some good tips here from the legal side and from my work on the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) and a repertoire of comebacks women can use to nip such conduct in the bud. That repertoire is in the post below, “Did You Really Say That?”  More such on-your-feet-responses for women and men are in my book, Comebacks at Work.

Interview here

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Sexual Misconduct as a Spectrum


Here is an interview I did with David Brancaccio appearing on Marketplace Morning Report blog today about the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW).  The spectrum is in the blog following this one.

In the interview, we discuss how companies can use the SSMW — how we all can use it — to determine whether a statement or behavior is perhaps mildly offensive or much more serious.  We also talked about how companies can adapt it to include other examples.

David and I also talked in an interview aired today about the wider issues women face at work and how my Harvard Business Review 1993 case that went viral then,”The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk,” still has relevance today.  Nearly twenty-five years ago, David’s mother-in-law had shared it with his aunt who’d shared it with David’s wife, Mary. His aunt and Mary reminded him of the case and David tracked me down.  Have a listen.


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The Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) – Where We Draw The Lines

Daily we read about yet another person who has been accused of sexual misconduct.  And yet, except in the more obvious cases, people are unsure of where offensive or inappropriate behavior ends and sexual misconduct begins.  We’re operating in a maze. It’s time for some clarity and direction. Aristotle distinguished between mistakes and wickedness. So can we. Here’s a start — this time focusing on male to female offense and misconduct.



Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) –  Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Ph.D.

Decisions about which category a behavior falls into depend on the situation, tone of delivery and nonverbal behaviors.  This is not a set of cut-and-dried categories. It’s a first-pass blueprint for organizations – a way to start talking about what is and isn’t sexual misconduct. Additional examples can be added, some moved. The point is to get this conversation underway.


Common off-the-cuff compliments on such things as hair style and dress. “You look nice today;” “I like your haircut,”

“That’s a nice outfit;” “That’s a good color on you.”

Awkward/Mildly Offensive:

Comments on gender differences such as: “You would say that as a woman,” “I suppose it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind;” “We can’t speak frankly around you women anymore.”

Offensive (Not necessarily or overtly intentional) 

Holding a woman’s arm while talking

Uninvited hugs

Patronizing/dismissive/exclusionary behavior toward women

Sharing jokes about female blondes, brunettes, red-heads, etc.

Implying or stating women are distracted by family

Seriously Offensive (Intentional lowering of women’s value)

Denigrating comments about women in general

Jokes about a woman’s limited intellect or skills due to her gender

Words like “ice queen” or “female mafia” when referring to women

Comments about about physical attributes used to insult or demean a woman

Evident Sexual Misconduct 

Looking a woman up and down in a sexually suggestive manner

Grabbing, rude patting and unwelcome holding

Unwelcome, unexpected kissing

Ignoring a woman’s expressed disinterest in a personal/intimate relationship and continuing to hassle her

Making or telling crude jokes that demean women

Describing women with such terms as “slut” or “frigid”

Trying to demean a woman by implying/claiming she uses her gender to advance career goals

Egregious Sexual Misconduct

Exposing genitals

Physical sexual behavior while a woman is present

Pressing against a woman suggestively

Threatening/implying career damage to a woman who refuses to engage in sex or sexual behavior

Forcing or coercing a woman to have sex

UPDATE: The New York Times article “How a Culture of Harassment Persisted on Ford’s Factory Floors” by Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn (Dec. 19, 2017) provides examples of what blue-collar women have endured for years.  The term “snitch-bitch” was used to describe a woman who complained about sexual misconduct.  Others were hounded, prevented from doing their jobs, and accused of “raping the company.” One woman was referred to as “peanut butter legs.”  When she asked why, she was told, “Not only is it the color of your legs, but it’s the kind of legs you like to spread.”

Where do such examples and others in the article fit in the SSMW?  That’s what Ford and all companies need to ask — about egregious ones and lesser offenses.  In time, people will get it.  They’ll see that certain ways of talking to and acting around women are a bridge too far.  They’ll know when they’re in a danger zone and when they’re over the line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know what’s rather rude and what’s clearly crude. Both are bad, but the latter is worse.

The more examples companies place in the SSMW, the clearer misconduct will become. As the Ford story indicates, however, this exercise is not a one-shot effort.  It needs to happen over time and be revisited regularly.  Otherwise, companies slip back into old ways. Women experience retaliation and the workplace becomes hostile again.




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