The “Broken Windows” Theory was a topic we wrote about a lot.  We wondered if it could be applied to the workplace.

Is it back in the criminal justice arena?

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?

The “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 received a ton of comments, and published a good number.

Is It Baaack?

Some theories, proven or unproven, seem to find a way to circle around and reappear — sometimes years later.

Today’s Wall Street Journal reported that the crime rate in NYC is still declining, but major felonies increased slightly in the City’s 31 largest parks.  The new Police Commisioner, William Bratton, said he would examine the data and “take a look at everything in the city.”  The Journal said that “The commissioner said he would ask George Kelling, who helped develop the “broken windows” theory of crime fighting – which entails cracking down on small, quality-of-life crimes in hopes of preventing more significant crimes – to study crime in city parks and pedestrian plazas.”

So if Commissioner Bratton is reconsidering this theory as part of his crime-fighting strategy, should we reconsider it as part of our “zero tolerance in the workplace strategy?”