Photo Courtesy of Vesna Terzic

When we work on creating and sustaining great organisational culture – one where people thrive and feel they are included and belong – we often talk about the most important things that have to be present to make that happen. Purpose, relationships, accountability – you know the list. But that doesn’t mean for a second that great culture can be good things built on shaky foundations. Great culture is only ever built on foundations of zero tolerance for the bad stuff – the stuff that makes us feel like we don’t belong, or wouldn’t want to belong. And Zero Tolerance is not a policy. It’s a way of being, leading and coming at the world.

With all the debate around sexual harassment at the moment, we thought we’d take a radically different approach. Rather than talking about who is getting it wrong, we thought we’d talk about organisations that are getting it right.

What is a zero tolerance culture?

A Zero Tolerance Culture is exactly what it says on the label. It’s a culture with zero tolerance for bullying, harassment, and discrimination. No ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, ‘except whens’ or ‘except them’s’. It is an expectation that every person comes into a workplace knowing they will be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination. Everyone is clear on the expectations and everyone has access to good info. They know how to ask questions or raise concerns as they arise. Eggshells are removed and everyone has a role in creating and sustaining that culture.

Who’s getting it right?

You’d be surprised. There’s a lot of companies getting it right. Huge Government departments. Pretty sizeable tech companies. Investment banks. Not-For-Profits. Purpose-built social enterprises. For profit banks. Big companies and small. Some years down the track and others just started. They have two things in common. Firstly, they’re not on the front page of the paper, and secondly, this isn’t something they talk about – it’s an expected baseline.

What can we learn from them?

A lot.

The simplest lesson from these companies is the ‘why?’. Why do you build a foundation of zero tolerance? Because, in the words of one of the leaders, “you want every single person in this organisation to feel safe, respected and included. Nothing more. Nothing less”.

And there it is – Zero tolerance is based on safety, respect, and inclusion.

What does leadership look like?

So, in these organisations what does leadership look like?

Well, in the first instance, they look like everyone else. They’re not taller, better dressed or expecting anything more than anyone else. The leaders are just normal people in amongst the crowd. And maybe that says a lot.

It’s their actions that speak the loudest.

They are out and about, asking and listening. They’re hearing people’s views, unfiltered.

Plus, they know the numbers. Every complaint or concern that has been raised.

They look at the total numbers of issues and consider where they sit under specific senior leaders, so not just the incident and the person, but the aggregate numbers that speak to culture. They deal with issues raised, and don’t sweep them under the carpet.

Do policies matter?

Yes, but they’re not the cure all.

We’ve had good laws since 1984, and have had good policies pretty much since then too. It’s good to have a policy, so rules and expectations are clear, but they are not holding the culture together. They don’t set the high bar where your best people live. Good people don’t say “I’m really keen to comply with the policy”. They only reach for the policy when the rules are broken.

Does good process matter?

Yes, but again, it’s not the only thing you need.

You do need clarity on how to raise an issue, question or concern. It needs to be safe to do so, and you need to feel well supported as you do so. It isn’t a legal court, but a balance between fairness and transparency, a right of reply, without isolating everyone involved.

You need a highly skilled person to act as investigator – a great listener, an open mind, a person who can create space for difficult conversations without needing to solve everything in the fastest manner possible, nor can they take too long. Days are the rule, not weeks or months. And perhaps the most important thing is that they understand the impact on everyone. Bullying, harassment and discrimination are not victimless crimes. People get damaged. Badly. And the best investigators are looking at that as much as the case. In short, they get it, and genuinely care.  It is not a case, to be won or lost, it’s a person.

The best investigators we’ve met are calm. They are no fuss, kind and a person that everyone trusts, not beating their chest on the number of cases won or silenced. They love the tricky work they do quietly to hold culture for the organisation and wellbeing of everyone involved

They know that each and every issue must be resolved in a way that mends the victim, and changes the unacceptable behaviour, whatever the intent.

Thoughtful. Not seeking glory. Never out the front.

How do they create common language?

With conversations.

From Day 1 an introduction to language and an expectation to join the conversation, ask questions and be involved, is as important as any policy. In good culture, everyone plays a role and takes that opportunity seriously. They’re part of holding the expectations, and making sure ‘zero tolerance’ is not a slogan or motto, but a real commitment.

How fragile is Zero Tolerance?

Very. But you have to commit to it anyway.

Only a small percent of us are bullies, harassers and discriminators, but the rest of us can sometimes make mistakes. To hold zero tolerance, you have to be prepared to act on everything below the line.

That first case, you sweep under the carpet.

That story you silence with an Non-Disclosure Agreement or Deed of Release (both, which in their application, could simply be called a ‘Hush Agreement’ for good reasons).

That time you defend an indefensible set of numbers on a senior leader’s watch, or turn a blind eye to a bully that everyone is talking about, but is performing too well for you to take action against.

Each of those is the first and last straw that breaks the credibility of Zero Tolerance.

Because any hint of tolerance supports your people thinking ‘we will tolerate anything round here’.

And if you’re in a culture that currently tolerates the intolerable, there’s no time like now to step up and make the change. Decide you’re going to zero tolerance and take the first step. No one will believe it until its true, but every action you take will build trust and credibility.

Why does Zero Tolerance Matter?

Because its foundational to good culture. Its foundational to Belonging.

It’s fundamentally impossible to ‘belong’ and give it your best shot, when someone is harassing you,  bullying you, or discriminating unfairly against you.

And there’s absolutely no way around it.

If you want to build and sustain a good culture, it starts right at the foundations, including

Zero Tolerance for anything less than acceptable.