I talk to a lot of people about anti-harassment policies. For a long time, those discussions were mostly about why we should have them for our events. After that, figuring out what to put in them predominated. Much discussion has gone into how to treat people who come forward to report abuse and how and whether to share information with people who might have a legitimate interest.
Those are all good discussions to have. I think they’ve generally been productive. Some of them, like sharing information, will be ongoing for a while as we make good decisions and bad in these uncharted waters. Lately, however, a different topic has been surfacing.
We know from situations in which they’ve failed that “zero-tolerance” policies, policies in which any act that is deemed to be unacceptable results in expulsion and exclusion, don’t work well. They fail in three main ways. People who are against harassment policies in general are quick to point out that they leave no room for honest mistakes. They are correct when talking about zero-tolerance policies, even if they make the same criticism about all policies.
These policies also fail because they discourage reporting. People who experience undesirable behavior under zero-tolerance policies know that reporting may well lead to expulsion. That frequently isn’t what they’re looking for. They just want the behavior to stop. This means that much undesirable behavior goes unreported. Even people who have experienced significant harassment won’t always report if reporting means taking responsibility for someone being expelled and excluded.
Finally, zero-tolerance policies fail because they’re difficult for organizers to follow. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. When there’s a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy, it gets harder for organizers to determine they’re making the right choice. Patterns of behavior are easier to work with than a single incident. Except in blatant cases, a single incident may be ambiguous where a pattern of behavior won’t be. This can lead to very high standards of evidence being required for action because the only action allowed is drastic.
It’s little wonder that we avoid zero-tolerance policies. At the same time, however, we haven’t talked much about how event organizers should deal with behavior that, on its own, may not merit expulsion. And if organizers don’t feel they have the knowledge to do more than expel or ignore, we end up with de facto zero-tolerance policies.