Last February we asked:  what if employers (who, hopefully, adhere to a well-publicized “zero-tolerance” policy towards sexual harassment, or any kind of harassment for that matter), actively discouraged, showed disapproval or otherwise rebuked every stray or trivial unwanted comment or act that did not rise to a legally-actionable level?  Would this cause a decrease in actionable harassment or a less hostile workplace?

15800294_sThe “Broken Windows Theory”

We asked readers to consider “the broken windows theory” posited in 1982, at perhaps the height of urban blight and crime, put forward by a couple of professors who argued that if an urban environment was kept well-ordered and every “broken window” repaired (i.e., every act of public disorder addressed) this might stop an escalation into more serious crime – “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” Mayor Giuliani in NYC heartily endorsed and implemented this theory.

We quoted from the seminal article in The Atlantic Monthly, where the professors explained:

“at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. … We suggest that ‘untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. … A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers (emphasis added).”

Does This Theory Have Any Application To The Workplace?

We wondered in our post (without addressing the theory, or the controversy surrounding it), if it nonetheless could be usefully applied to the workplace.  Could we, in fact, decrease incidents of actionable harassment if we stop or discourage even sub-actionable unwanted comments or behavior?

We “left it to the HR professionals out there” to devise ways to do this (perhaps better training, posters advising employees that any such unwanted behavior – a “joke,” a “funny” email, or a one-off comment – is unacceptable and will not be tolerated). But it seems that at a minimum a zero tolerance policy must come from and be followed from the top down, and an appropriate corporate culture must be nurtured.

The Comments Rolled In

This post received perhaps the largest number of reader comments that we have ever received – both pro and con, that is, those who thought that there was some merit to our application of the theory, and those who didn’t – or condemned the theory altogether.  Moreover, the comments came from all over the world.

We reprise this post to those who never read it, and solicit further comments from those of you who may have noodled this issue during the last year.