Zero Tolerance? Disruption, Change and Policy

“You will feel a little discomfort.” A little discomfort is squinting in bright sunlight. A little discomfort is your underwear wedged in your butt crack. This feels like my teeth are being flossed with a very slender wire, this feels like a sharp object is being shoved into my gums. This is not discomfort, this is pain. I am not numb and I feel every part of this gum surgery. On Thursday, I took a phrase at its basic value and distorted reality to make it true. I thought myself  weak, or maybe I didn’t have a good idea of discomfort.  I missed the obvious, the anesthesia had worn off.

What about the words, slogans and branding that you hear, what do they mean? In the wake of #metoo and #timesup, companies have stated they have a zero tolerance policy. What does that really mean? Is it “feel good” public relations? In schools, zero tolerance policy mandate automatic punishment, such as suspension or expulsion, for infractions of a stated rule. While sounding good ideologically, what does it mean in practice? Results and studies over the last decade show these types of policies are ineffective. In companies with “zero tolerance” around discrimination and harassment, what does it mean, especially if these organizations offer no training?

Decidedly there is a difference between an inappropriate comment, inappropriate touch, inappropriate behavior and assault. I ask again, what is zero tolerance. It’s illogical to treat these four instances the same yet none have are acceptable in the workplace. As we make the transition to respect and dignity, when does the conversation start? Many companies have released “statements.” Change is more than a decision; issuing a statement is not a cultural shift; a start does not mean a finish. As a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in the 80’s, I received a well thought our letter with the recommendations we adapt gender inclusive language. The letter was addressed Dear Sirs. We were a progressive idea trapped in a default setting. David Foster Wallace said the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about and used the fish parable to illustrate.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We’re at a point of disruption with a broad spectrum of sexism. This present two challenges. One is to acknowledge a repressive construct is in place, the default setting. The other is, disruption requires construction; if you break down an existing paradigm, what comes next? This is policy and this is the tricky part. Effective policy is somewhat like a recipe. To reach a desired outcome, there are ingredients and an environment that makes it a success. A recipe can be tested and tweak. It can evolve over time to meet the current needs. At any time, you can test it to see if the results meet the intent. As we emerge from #metoo and #timesup, what’s the construct, what’s next. For companies heralding zero tolerance, what’s the policy? Is it working? On a personal level, what is your policy? When something seems to be wrong, do you speak up, engage, educate or tolerate?

I stood stunned and simply replied, “that is inappropriate.”  In the vortex of sexual harassment, here was a man saying something indisputably awful to me. Substantiating, just because there is a heightened awareness of an issue, a hashtag and movement, there is not an immediate behavior change. It was my role to set a boundary and accept an apology when offered later. There is no change unless we all change.

If you’d ask me last Wednesday, would you do gum surgery without anesthesia, I would have given you a withering look and disdainfully said no; yet in the moment, there I felt everything.  The reality was different; I mentally tried to rationalize pain as discomfort. I’ve done a far better job with responses for the spectrum of sexual misconduct. What are your policies?  As a woman, do you have your policy? As a man, if you were standing beside me and heard the offending comment, would you have spoken? Be more than a hashtag; be disruption, change and policy in the making.




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