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Tom Fox: What part of ‘zero tolerance’ don’t they understand?

What does it mean to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal or unethical conduct? Does it mean no as in never, no as in maybe, or no as in we’ll see?

These questions and perhaps several others came to mind when the Houston Astros announced they had traded for closer Roberto Osuna earlier this week. The reason is that Osuna is on a 75-game suspension by Major League Baseball for violation of its domestic abuse policy. It involved an incident for assault, for which Osuna has pleaded not guilty to in a criminal case in Ontario.

For the Astros, they have (or perhaps more appropriately had) a zero-tolerance policy for domestic abuse. David Barron, writing in the Houston Chronicle, said the club’s response was that the zero-tolerance policy did not apply to Osuna because the alleged assault occurred before he joined the Astros and that Osuna would benefit from “great examples of character in our existing clubhouse that we believe will help him and his family establish a fresh start.”

That final sentence brings up another reason for such sanctions — rehabilitation. Should a person who commits a crime or unethical action be forever banned from practicing their craft?

In his article, Barron quoted Cindy Southworth, an executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, who posed the following question: “How do you balance redemption and behavioral change with holding people accountable?”

She then answered her own question with, “It’s messy. It’s not straightforward. But you can do both.”

I would only add (parenthetically) that if your right arm is a cannon, you will probably get such a chance.

In the anti-corruption compliance world, one incident of unethical behavior would be seen as a red flag for similar behavior in the future. It might be enough to prevent such a person or entity from passing a due diligence background screening.

On the other hand, a person convicted or found guilty of bribery and corruption might well serve their time, become rehabilitated, and use those experiences to help others avoid the scourge of corruption going forward.

As for the Astros, it’s pretty clear that the right arm of Osuna is the only currency the club is concerned about as it mounts a defense of its 2017 World Series championship. Yet in the court of public opinion, the Astros have certainly dropped a few notches.

ESPN’s Buster Olney said of the Astros’ trade to acquire Osuna: “Surprising…disappointing…shocking….appalling.”

Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan was even more direct when he said the Astros had engaged in “moral bankruptcy by acquiring a player of tainted character, because, in this case, he can get outs in the ninth inning.”


Tom Fox is the Compliance Evangelist™.  He leads the social media discussion on compliance with his award-winning blog, The FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog and eight podcasts; The FCPA Compliance Report, Compliance into the Weeds, Everything Compliance, This Week in FCPA, 12 O’clock High-a Podcast on Business Leadership, Compliance Report-International Edition, Countdown to GDPR and Across the Board. 

He’s the author of 12 books on compliance, ethics and leadership. His latest Amazon bestseller, “The Compliance Handbook” is available here.

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  1. Well put Tom Fox!

  2. Thank you for pointing out that he pled not guilty. From what I can tell, he hasn't been convicted. I don't understand why that 'small' fact isn't part of the equation. His rocket arm may be helping ensure his second chance but his position is also causing him to be presumed guilty. (I'm not defending men who abuse women; but a presumption of innocence is a fundamental component of our justice system, is it not? Canada's as well?)

  3. Laurie is correct, and the case may not be as cut and dried as presented. Osuna’s court date is Sept. 5. Meanwhile, he has been placed on administrative leave. Heavy handed comments like “tainted character” do not help. Cannon arm or not.

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