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There is a recurring problem in employment matters: elevating a policy or a rule over the substance and taking disciplinary actions that end up harming an employee, very possibly the organization, or both.

A recent story out of Madison, Wisconsin, highlights the problem. An African American security guard was called a racial slur by a student. The guard spoke up for himself and told the student not to refer to him by that word. Good for him for speaking up. His problem? He repeated the slur back when telling the student to not say it. His use of the word, even if to simply say “don’t call me X,” violated the school district’s “zero tolerance” policy against the use of racial slurs. The violation resulted in termination of employment, with the principal explaining that racial slurs are banned, regardless of context. For its rigid adherence to this rule, the school district had to contend with a labor grievance, a walkout protest by students, backlash from the community, and national attention and notoriety. The incident was discussed in the New York Times and also in a Twitter post from Cher, who offered to pay the individual’s legal fees.

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