The Lost Art of Being a Compassionate Person
Ethics Resources

Broken Windows Theory and Organizational Culture

Combating Wrongdoing in the Workplace

Many people know about the “Broken Windows Theory” that former mayor Rudy Giuliani applied to clean up neighborhoods in New York City. The idea is by paying attention to small things first, larger ones would be abated. This included graffiti, garbage thrown around, and anything that diminishes the quality of life as well as petty crimes. It worked and NYC looked and felt better than ever before.

The theory was first introduced in 1982 in an article in Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Here’s what they said: “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.” Broken windows

The Broken Windows Theory has recently been applied to enhance organizational culture in the workplace. According to Doug Perry, who talks about “the ground rules and proper ethics managers do not often consider when running a business,” a company should take care of the small issues first to avoid bigger problems in the future. For example, the taking of office supplies or misuse of company electronic equipment should be dealt with swiftly so bigger crimes such as fraud would be less likely to occur.

Torben Rick, who posted a piece on LinkedIn, says ‘broken window’ occurs when organizations choose to ignore early signs of poor behavior that manifests itself later in in senior leader behavior that can damage the reputation of the organization. By dealing with the small issues, senior managers establish a tone at the top that should permeate throughout the organization that small things will be handled quickly to ward off more serious offenses. Ethical leadership rules out over self-interested behavior.

The Broken Windows Theory can be more successful if the organization establishes clear cut policies that misconduct will not be tolerated. Moreover, whistleblowing processes should be established so that offenses can be dealt with immediately without fear of retaliation.

In a research study by Stephen Stubben and Kyle Welch posted on Harvard Business Review online, it was found that “firms actively using their internal reporting systems face fewer material lawsuits and have lower settlement amounts than firms ignoring—or minimally using—similar information. While all firms are likely to have some frequency of issues, firms where these are reported early are more likely to address them before they become larger problems resulting in costly litigation.” This is a manifestation of the Broken Windows Theory because material offenses are handled internally – quickly – rather than by external reporting of wrongdoing.

The most important points from an ethical perspective are:

  • Develop a first responders’ outlet for employees to report small crimes before they become big ones.
  • Assign responsibility for oversight of the internal compliance system to ensure Broken Windows is followed.
  • Include a provision in the code of ethics to outline the processes to deal swiftly with violations of the policy.
  • Develop training programs to explain just how the theory works in practice.
  • Incorporate compliance with Broken Windows into the performance evaluation system.

The Broken Windows Theory is a welcome addition to the toolkit all organizations should have to deal with small problems before they become big headaches and cause irreparable damage to the health and welfare of the organization.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 30, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.