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Pascale Barrette Brisson (École nationale d'administration publique, Canada)

Managing violence: the myth of zero-tolerance


The purpose of this paper is to present the results of a case study on organisational violence in a hospital setting, illustrating the paradoxes of a zero tolerance philosophy to eliminate violence in the workplace. I argue that due to the arbitrary application of a non-violence policy the official discourse of zero tolerance is a myth.

The study

Workplace violence can occur between employees and clients as well as among employees themselves (Aurousseau, 2002; Hesketh, Duncan et al., 2003). In 2001, many hospitals in Quebec, Canada implemented policies of non-violence based on a zero tolerance philosophy. These new policies were implemented in part to provide justice for the victims and also to help managers deal with the responsibility of managing violence (Lamy, 2000, Mckoy and Smith, 2001). I conducted a case study in one of these hospitals to a) examine the phenomenon of violence among employees; b) understand how managers and investigators deal with violence; and c) explain the impact of administrative measures, such as a zero tolerance policy, on the management of violence.

This study uses a social constructionist perspective (Berger and Luckmann, 1967) to examine how individuals perceive and interpret the phenomenon of violence in their workplace and how their experiences contribute to the construction of violence among colleagues. I am interested in understanding how violence is interpreted and managed by three types of actors: first, the managers who, in their everyday work, are asked to judge, interpret and punish violent acts; second, the “investigators”, who have been recently appointed to execute the procedure provided in the policy; and third, the committee members who wrote the policy and are responsible for violence prevention in the organisation. These actors, by their experiences and decisions, contribute to the social construction of violence, which for the purposes of this study is defined as the transgression of a social norm (Aurousseau, 2000; 2002).

Data collection includes the examination of all organisational documents related to the policy and to the management of violence; the analysis of official complaints investigated since the policy was implemented; interviews with managers, committee members in charge of writing and implementing the policy, and investigators; and the non-participant observation of one complaint investigation.

The policy content 

The philosophy regarding violence in the hospital promulgates an official zero tolerance discourse: no act of violence whatsoever will be tolerated in the organisation. A non-violence policy was implemented to achieve this goal and to put in place mechanisms to treat violent situations. This policy defines violence as abusive behaviour or an act which uses force or intimidation on a person to compel an action against his/her will and includes the verbal, physical, symbolic, psychological and sexual forms of violence.

Manager’s responsibilities are defined in the policy as promoting it in their Department, ensuring a safe environment, intervening in violent situations, collaborating in investigations and imposing sanctions, when necessary. There are, as well, responsibilities for employees: they must know the policy, respect their colleagues and collaborate in managing violence, by reporting violent acts they witness.

The procedure to register a complaint is outlined in the policy. The victim must fill in a form and give it to the appropriate investigator. If the alleged perpetrator of the violence is a client or a doctor, special investigators handle the complaints. If however, the individual in question is an employee, one of the two investigators in the Department of Human Resources takes and handles the complaint. This paper provides an analysis of the work of these investigators. In order to discourage repeat offences, the policy allows, as a last step in the procedure, for sanctions to be prescribed for every violent act that has been confirmed.

The policy ends with the form required to declare acts of violence which consists of two parts. The first part is structured as a closed questionnaire. The victim identifies the forms of violence that are the most appropriate to describe the event by marking the box next to the twelve possibilities listed, which are verbal intimidation, verbal or physical insult, death threats, spitting, grabbing, slapping, hitting, pinching, scratching, biting and shoving. Next, the victim selects between nine choices to describe the state the aggressor was in and then chooses between nine factors to specify what led the perpetrator to be violent. The second part is a space that allows for a narrative description by the victim of what happened. It is this declaration form, when duly completed and filed, that constitutes an official complaint.

The procedure for treatment of complaints

In the policy, there are no details on how the complaint should be handled once it has been filed. This non-official procedure has been reconstituted throughout the observation and the interviews. After an employee files an official complaint, the first step is to evaluate if it is well-founded. The investigators determine if the situation deserves further investigation. If not, they inform the victim that his/her complaint is groundless. If it is, then the investigators meet the victim, the aggressor, their manager(s) and witnesses in order to reconstitute the event. Finally, they agree on a sanction, if necessary, which is proportionate to their judgement of the violent nature of the act. The manager is responsible for administering the sanction.

Analyzing the management of violence

Three principal observations were made during the course of this study with regards to the management of violence by the investigators. For each of these observations, there are consequences related to the management and the social construction of violence.

First, the policy creates a new role in the organisation, namely, the investigator’s role of applying this policy and managing violence between colleagues. The problem here is that this new role is not defined nor mentioned in the policy. Investigators play an important role but they are not officially responsible for it. They are very influential when it comes to decisions concerning violence, yet they are formally invisible in the policy. Consequently, this gap gives them considerable room to manoeuvre in the management of violence.

The second observation concerns the incompleteness of the procedure: after the complaint is filed, there are no specifications as to how the investigators should treat them. Therefore, investigators arbitrarily manage complaints, as they have no boundaries for procedural steps and delays for making their decisions. In fact, I observed a distinct lack of rigour in their work. An administrative procedure, such as the one under study, to manage violence in the workplace, aims at fair treatment of cases. The accumulation of evidence and other relevant documentation can help in solving future cases, thus ensuring that the case will be treated the same way as the one preceding it and the subsequent one. In this case, there was no paper trail to track the work done by the investigators and no link to previous or current cases.

The third observation is that decisions taken by investigators are coercive, and the sanctions are a means of control and repression to prevent repeat offences. The consequence is that perpetrators themselves feel attacked, and this perpetuates the original conflict between the victim and himself. As one manager testified, the violence between two employees was even more palpable after a sanction was applied, than before the investigation began!

The arbitrary management of violence and the use of certain sanctions have another consequence: this situation contributes to individualizing violence, and therefore denies its social and organizational character. To illustrate this, the declaration form is telling: it offers victims the possibility of identifying only individual factors leading to the event such as stress, interpersonal conflict, vengeance and dissatisfaction, thus masking possible social and organisational factors. The impact of such individualization is that in the absence of the discussion of violence prevention among employees in the investigators discourse, this reinforces coercive measures to eliminate violence.

The paradoxes of zero tolerance

The first paradox is that in spite of the official discourse on zero tolerance, investigators choose which cases merit treatment, and hence interpret, define, construct and judge the nature of the violence in the acts described in the complaints. This arbitrary application of policy contributes to the social construction of a discourse in which certain violent behaviours are tolerated, while others are not. The form used to declare an act of violence is revealing, for only two types of violence are officially recognized, verbal and physical, while five,  physical, psychological, sexual, symbolic and verbal violence, are described in the policy. The investigators acknowledge verbal and physical violence far more often than, for instance, psychological aggression.

Secondly, there is a paradox between the zero tolerance discourse and the prescribed sanctions because the investigators use coercive, even violent, though legitimate means in an attempt to eliminate violence.

To summarize, the zero tolerance discourse, as promoted in the hospital, is a myth, as the policy that is currently applied to the management of violence, tolerates forms of violence rather than eliminates them. Moreover, violence is individualized and, in spite of promoting preventive measures, only corrective means are used to eliminate it. How can a zero tolerance ideal be achieved if no action is taken prior to a violent act?


AUROUSSEAU, C. (2000). « Les ancrages organisationnels, individuels et sociaux des violences hiérarchiques et organisationnelles  - vers une approche globale ». Pistes (En ligne), 2(2), 21 p.

Accès : http://www.unites.uqam.ca/pistes/v2n2/sommaire.html

AUROUSSEAU, C. (2002). « Le gestionnaire et la violence organisationnelle »: entre responsabilités et pouvoirs. Réussir, Bulletin de l’Association des cadres scolaires du Québec (En ligne), 9(1), 17 p.

Accès : http://www.acsq.qc.ca/publication/reussir/Reussirjuin2002.pdf

BERGER, P. and LUCKMANN, T. (1967). La construction sociale de la réalité. Paris : Armand Collin, 288p.

HESKETH, K., DUNCAN, S. and al. (2003). « Workplace violence in Alberta and British Columbia hospitals », Health Policy, vol. 63, p. 311-321.

LAMY, F. (2000). »Comment contrer le harcèlement et la violence psychologique au travail? » Options CEQ (En ligne), 19, 115-148.

Accès: http://www.csq.qc.net/options/opt.19/harcele.pdf

MCKOY, Y. et SMITH, M. H. (2001). Legal considerations of workplace violence in healthcare environments. Nursing forum, 1, 5-14.