A common analogy in crime prevention is the ‘broken window theory’. This theory is based on the premise that a broken window, if left unrepaired, will encourage further damage and lawlessness.
The broken window theory first appeared in an article titled “Broken Windows” in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The title comes from the following example:
“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”
To test this theory, a study was conducted by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. An automobile without licence plates was parked with its hood up on a street in a crime-ridden neighbourhood and a comparable automobile was parked on a street in a relatively upscale neighbourhood. The car in the bad neighbourhood was attacked by vandals within ten minutes of its ‘abandonment’. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Random destruction then began – windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Meanwhile, the car in the nice neighbourhood sat untouched for more than a week. Zimbardo then smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed.
Essentially, neglect breeds neglect. It sends the message that no one is paying attention, no one cares. It says loud and clear that the criminal element can operate undeterred.
An area where graffiti is not painted over – or parks where litter is scattered around – sends the same message. Consider your own instincts when travelling through various neighbourhoods. Would you stop in an area where street lights are burned out or smashed, where buildings have broken windows or are boarded up and covered in graffiti or where litter is blowing through the streets? The perception becomes the reality.
This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as it is in rundown ones. If the problem is left untended, it will encourage a worsening of the situation and invite new problems to occur such as drug trafficking, muggings and prostitution. Neglect accelerates the problem more than any other factor.
The deeper, underlying concern is that an area prone to deviance actually encourages others to cross that line as well. Someone who may not throw that first piece of litter would be more inclined to do so if the area was already scattered with debris. Another example of this is freeways where speeding has become a normal and accepted behaviour even by those who are respectable and law-abiding citizens.
The opposite is also true…having an area that is completely free of litter, encourages people to not litter and go out of their way to dispose of it. It may even encourage some to pick up a piece of litter to maintain the quality of the area.
The same can be said in the workplace. If minor infractions are not addressed, it sends a message to employees that management is not paying attention and is encouraging a culture of aberrant behaviour by condoning a certain level of malfeasance in the workplace. This applies to absenteeism, theft, drug use, harassment, safety infractions and other blights in the workplace. It also sends the worse message that honest, caring and loyal employees do not have an outlet to address concerns they see in the workplace for fear of being ostracized.
Only a zero tolerance policy, strictly enforced, can resolve the issue of the broken window theory. This results in a workplace where the staff is focused, committed to the company’s goals and willing to actively participate in addressing issues before they get out of hand.