Lessons from The Broken Window Theory 1


So there I was – chairing another disciplinary. The iniator was doing his level best to convince me (without success) that the accussed’s infraction merited dismissal. Unfortunately – it was one of those cases of deja vu all over again. I had no doubt that the individual was a problem child deserving some harsher sanction. The problem lay more with the inability of the company to present me with sufficient evidence of previous misconduct. The incident used as the basis of the charge was clear – and he was guilty without a doubt. However, the Code of Good Practice encourages “progressive discipline” – meaning that we warn, encourage the individual to correct his behaviour – and if all else fails, only then dismiss.

It all hinges on a willingness to address the infractions when they occur. Unfortunately, as most manager become a bit shy and retiring when faced with the difficult conversations, the infraction is allowed to “go away”. After some time, the employee really outdoes himself and the offense is now more serious (or irritating). Action must be taken. The manager’s manager says “Fire the SOB”. Well – that may not be too easy given the absolute dearth of recorded disciplinary action. No verbal warnings, no written warnings.

Wilson and Keeling introduced the “broken window theory” to the field of criminology way back in 1982 in an article titled “Broken Windows” (in the Atlantic Monthly). Briefly, the article stated:

“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. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

The basic approach appeared to have been validated in New York City, where small infringements were targeted (broken windows, graffiti, squeegee men etc). The thinking was that eliminating petty crime would ensure that the environment conducive to more serous crime would not be created. (OK – it is debatable)

The basic premise is fairly sound however. I have found that in companies where attendance was an issue, smaller infractions (such as lateness) were often ignored. The focus was on those who took Monday (babalas day) off – or who failed to arrive for agreed overtime. The broken window theory tells us to focus on the smaller infractions and the larger ones will not have the climate in which to develop. Lateness must be addressed, infractions recorded (assuming you have policies and procedures in place). The other issue is, of course, consistency. One cannot tackle one employee’s poor discipline while at the same time condoning another’s. If you really want a red face in the CCMA arbitration, be inconsistent in your discipline. (I would not recommend it).

Besides, if the smaller infractions are noted, discipline / counseling is recorded, the ultimate sanction becomes a lot easier to impose. I suppose the message really is – sweat the small stuff. If you don’t remove a small splinter it could becomes a huge festering lump that may result in amputation.

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One thought on “Lessons from The Broken Window Theory

  • Danie van Heerden

    Allen what you say is absolutely true and I have experianced this during the time I was a Shop Stewrd.

    the word “But” comes to effect and that is a word I do not like to use.

    Having a procedure in place opens doors for victimisation and all that goes with it.

    I would have liked to see you in action as a Chairman in a dissiplinary!!!