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?   

Consider this: In 1982, at perhaps the height of urban blight and crime, there arose a popular, albeit controversial/debatable theory, put forward by a couple of professors who called it “the broken windows theory.”   In short, the professors 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.

From the seminal article in The Atlantic Monthly, 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).”

Without addressing the evidence for or against this theory, or the controversy surrounding it, we wonder if it can 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?   I leave 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.      

In our post of December 24, 2012, we urged employers to make a New Year’s resolution to  “create a non-permissive environment.” We quoted both a Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office spokesperson and a young woman in India, respectively, in this regard:  

“The solution to [sexual harassment] is creating a non-permissive environment where sexual harassment, sexist behavior, stalking and these types of behaviors are not condoned, tolerated or ignored.”

“I never tolerate any kind of harassment, so this (zero tolerance) is in my resolution list every year.”