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How Zero-Tolerance Sexual Harassment Policies Can Actually Backfire For Women
Alex Wilson

It’s easy to look at everything going on in the world right now and categorize the “bad guys” from the “good guys.” The allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are reminders that there are plenty of people taking advantage of women who just want to work; they make it too easy to look at the world in black and white.

Recent events have inspired new conversations around zero tolerance policies for sexual harassment at work.  Though zero tolerance policies would ensure that all perpetrators would face the same harsh punishments (which could include the perpetrator getting fired), the unfortunate reality is that there is no simple, binary solution to stopping sexual harassment and assault at work.

One of the individuals pushing for employers to adopt zero-tolerance policies is Camilla Palmer, the joint CEO and principal solicitor of Your Employment Settlement Service. In a letter she wrote to The Guardian, Palmer acknowledged that much harassment in the workplace is unchallenged.

“It is employers’ legal responsibility to maintain a harassment-free workplace… Individuals cannot be expected to stick their head above a parapet,” Palmer wrote. “Employers must adopt a zero-tolerance policy and sack the perpetrators.”

Though there is widespread acknowledgment that things must change, experts disagree on the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy. “The problem with zero tolerance is that it’s very binary,” organizational psychology expert Liane Davey told Quartz. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not at all binary.”

NYU psychology professor Niobe Way agrees. In her book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” Way researched how masculinity is presented and reinforced throughout society.

“As long as we continue to make it between bad guys and good guys… we’re never going to get anywhere,” Way told Quartz. “It’s about blaming the person, and not understanding that at the root of all these problems is a culture of toxic masculinity.”

Way and Davey suggest that instead of policies that focus on the person, employers should create policies that address the culture. There should be consequences for sexual harassers, but employers must also foster an environment where employees don’t operate in fear.

“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,” Davey said.  

If such education isn’t implemented, it could lead men to limit their interactions with women at work. Prominent male executives and politicians have openly admitted to not associating with women outside of traditional workplace relationships, and while this may make male leaders more comfortable, the lack of face time ultimately hurts women’s careers.

In an interview with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, LeanIn.org founder Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges that most mentoring opportunities happen outside of the workplace, at golf outings, coffee meetings and other social events. “A huge percentage of men are literally afraid to be seen one-on-one alone with women,” Sandberg said. “Where do you think the mentoring happens?”

Despite the good intentions behind zero-tolerance policies, the ways they can negatively affect women’s careers aren’t worth it. Instead, employers should focus on fostering an inclusive environment where employees are comfortable speaking up when they see something wrong.

“In many cases, the witness to [harassment] is more empowered than the person who is victimized,” Davey recommends. “Someone’s perception is their reality, so hear them out.”

Employers should always have policies in place for sexual harassers and assaulters, some of whom may not benefit from additional education and awareness. Perhaps now, more than ever, women have a chance to change the workplace for the better.

“Every harasser — past or present — should now feel vulnerable and worried,” Palmer wrote. “No one is indispensable.”


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