Zero tolerance?

Nov 30 2012 by Bob Selden Print This Article

William Bratton became the Police Commissioner of New York City in 1994. At the time, Bratton described New York as a " that had stopped caring for itself".

Bratton immediately instigated a strategic change in the direction in which the Police Department was managed. His recipe for change included:

Crime control strategies (i.e. developing strategies around specific types of crime, rather than being totally reactive to individual events).

Decentralised policing, where precinct commanders were given responsibility and accountability for managing their precincts.

The use of timely, accurate intelligence data.

Trust, for example giving street officers the authority to make drug arrests (rather than wait for specialist units) and allowing detectives access to computer systems that previously were seen as a risk of corruption.

An emphasis on quality of life crimes such as enforcing ordinances on graffiti, littering and public drinking as well as placing dual emphasis on serious crimes

Such strategies came to be given (particularly by the press) the overarching title of "Zero Tolerance" – a term commonly defined as "a policy that imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct". It is interesting to note however, that Bratton rejects this term as it "smacks of over zealousness, that it gives an unrealistic sense of what can be achieved and that it does not encompass the complexity of police work."

What's zero tolerance got to do with management you may well ask?

Well, before looking at that question in more detail, it's worth noting the nature of the management strategies Bratton put in place. If you were to take the word "crime" out of the five strategies (interesting to note that it only appears twice!), would they not be an ideal set of strategies for any well run organisation, be it public, private or commercial? How many of these are reflected in the strategies that direct the efforts of the people in your own organisation?

What brings me to this discussion on zero tolerance is the ridiculous "zero tolerance" strategies some cycling organisations have introduced in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.

In an effort to be seen as "clean" they have taken the term zero tolerance beyond it's intended aim of "eliminating undesirable behaviour" and made it retrospective.

For example Team Sky, whose lead rider Bradley Wiggins won this year's Tour de France announced they will comb through their rider and staff list and ask them to sign a document stating whether they have had any past or present involvement in doping. Meanwhile, the Australian team, Orica GreenEDGE have appointed an investigator to interview all personnel with a similar aim to that of Sky – to get rid of anyone previously associated with doping (one team manager has already resigned).

Now, on the surface, these strategies sound like good common sense – seek out the bad apples and spit them out. However, there are a number of things such strategies do not allow for.

Let's take one of Bretton's strategies that stands out for me – trust. Think back through your own life for a moment: I'll guarantee that each and everyone one of us has done something that we were not proud of, something that may have hurt others, some small or large lie (remember, we all lie – regularly) or something that may even have been illegal. Got it?

So having now changed your ways (or put this long behind you) would you want it raised in the public arena? Would you want to it to count against you in your employment? As a prophet of note is supposed to have once said "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7).

Imagine this. Your boss gets you into an office, sits you down, and tells you there are some serious allegations you need to answer. No, not about your current job. This particular interrogation is in regards to your last job, the one you held with your previous employer. Or perhaps even the one before that. Or even the one before that.

At what point does an employee's history become just that? History.

In Australia in 2007, Michael Coutts-Trotter was appointed Director-General of the New South Wales Department of Education. It was revealed at the time that he had once been in prison for a narcotics offence, arrested at a time when he was also a heroin user. As the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out "Even though he had since recovered, the accusations were still flung precipitately from the moral do-gooders, claiming Coutts-Trotter had a history too dark for such an influential role."

He served in the role regardless. He performed so impressively that, last year, when the Liberal politician Barry O'Farrell was elected Premier and subsequently cleaned out the public service, Coutts-Trotter was one of the few Labor appointments to be kept on, becoming Director-General of the Department of Finance and Services.

When explaining his decision, O'Farrell said: "I and my colleagues will always look for people who have merit, for people who can do the job."

As the SMH commented "Yes! Isn't that what it should always be about? O'Farrell has intelligently articulated that what matters is merit; what counts is ability; and what determines future accomplishments is talent and dedication, not some out dated transgressions (from which people have since learned and improved)."

The state of NSW would have lost an obviously great manager and administrator in Michael Coutts-Trotter, had the new Premier (and his predecessor) led with a zero tolerance strategy.

Secondly, are such zero tolerance strategies (used retrospectively as in the two cycling organisations), likely to weed out people who have previously cheated? Their policies state that if you have previously cheated (by taking or being involved in the administration of drugs) and you own up, you will be fired. If you don't own up and you're found out later, you'll be fired. What would be your choice?

My bet is that most people will sign the declarations (irrespective of their past) and take the risk. Now, where does this leave the zero tolerance policies of the organisations? Weak!

Such policies will ensure that the people who know most about how to prevent doping, are the ones who will leave.

From a management perspective, what would you do if you had to set some strategies for a top notch cycling team to ensure it was seen as clean?

I wonder what William Bratton would do were he to be in charge of these organisations?

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.