Marlon Anderson worked for the Madison, Wisconsin school district for 11 years before he was fired for using the N-word in a confrontation with a student.

That statement alone seems reasonable. As a society, we've agreed that there are some words so bad that one saying is an instant termination. In most contexts, I would agree with this type of termination, but not in this case. And, fortunately, the school district just rescinded that termination and offered Anderson his job back.

Interim Superintendent Jane Belmore said that Anderson would be reinstated after they looked at the facts. 

The facts are always the most critical aspect of any situation--and you should look at them even in cases where you have strict zero-tolerance policies. Here's what happened.

On October 9, Anderson escorted an "unruly" student out of the building. Both Anderson and the student are black. Anderson says that the student hurled racial epithets at him, including the n-word, and he responded, telling the student not to say such a thing.

 inline image

Note, in Anderson's Facebook post; he didn't even use the full word. He recognizes that it is incendiary. But within the context, it shouldn't be considered the same as if he had called a student that word in a different situation.

And he did not call a student anything inappropriate. He told the student not to say those things.

Sometimes we need adults who stand up to kids and tell them explicitly what they can and cannot do. Ignoring the behavior or using euphemisms would not be appropriate.

The community rallied around Anderson and supported his return to the position. Which, fortunately, was successful.

Employment attorney Eric Meyer asked people how they would handle a similar situation, and HR experts and attorneys chimed in. 

Attorney and HR Consultant Kate Bischoff said, "I would have a long conversation with the guard to make sure he is okay and thank him from telling me. That's it. (I'm assuming someone-not HR-is dealing with the student.)"

Employment Attorney Jon Hyman said, "This seems like a serious over-reaction, also serves a solid reminder why zero-tolerance policies seldom work."

I agree with both Bischoff and Hyman on this. Zero tolerance means zero thought, and that is not what you're looking for. And, as Bischoff said, HR should make sure that Anderson is okay--his reaction (while not ideal) was understandable and made clear to the student that he crossed a line. 

Scott Ziegler, the Executive Direct of Human Resources for the Portsmouth Public Schools chimed in: "There is a broader context missing here.  The district in question had a culture of insensitivity and missteps on racial issues.  Rather than do the real work of changing the culture, leadership took the reactive and easy step of adopting a zero-tolerance policy in which the security guard was ensnared.  It lacks common-sense but allowed the district to proudly proclaim 'we don't tolerate racism here!' Unless leadership is ready to have tough conversations, the culture will remain the same regardless of the rules."

While I can't verify Ziegler's assessment of the district's underlying problems, his analysis is correct. Change is hard work. Zero-tolerance is easy. But, it doesn't solve any underlying problems. It doesn't distinguish between bad behavior and attempts to change bad behavior.

None of this means that the N word should be generally allowed at work (or schools). If you're leading a seminar, Employment Attorney Amy Epstein Gluck points out, using the full word is inappropriate. 

Boundaries and rules around appropriate behavior--at school and work--are essential to a good environment. But zero-tolerance is rarely (if ever) the way to go. The Madison School district did the right thing in reinstating Anderson. If you're faced with a sticky situation, it's best to react slowly. You can suspend while you investigate and take your time, rather than responding quickly and inappropriately.