Bryan Caplan  

I'm Telling

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Alex Tabarrok suggests that sexual harassment is analogous to employee theft.  If this were so, however, victims of harassment would have an ridiculously easy remedy for their woes: Tell the boss. 

When an employee tattles on a co-worker for stealing, the boss is normally happy for the information, and eager to retaliate against the thief.  If sexual harassment were really comparable to employee theft, employers would be equally receptive to informants, and equally punitive against offenders - even in the absence of sexual harassment laws.

Does this sound like a realistic prediction to you?  It doesn't to me.  Bosses might welcome and act on complaints about egregious harassers.  But if they had zero liability, employers would probably treat sexual harassment issues like any other personality conflict.  While they'd intervene if things got out of hand, they'd prefer employees to resolve harassment issues on their own.  And if push came to shove, employers would just fire the worker they value less, not the worker who's "in the right."

Why does the analogy between employee theft and sexual harassment break down?  The most obvious difference is the ambiguity.  "Theft" isn't perfectly clear, but it's far clearer than "harassment."  A worker who tells the boss, "John is stealing from the company" might be lying, but he's probably not honestly mistaken or overly sensitive.  In contrast, a worker who tells the boss, "John is harassing me," might be any of these things.

If you read the legal definition of "sexual harassment," another key difference from employee theft jumps out at you.  A key component is "unwelcome sexual advances."  This immediately raises an awkward question: How can anyone know if an advance is "unwelcome" until he actually makes the advance?  You can't.  The only safe strategy, then, is to make no advances whatsoever. 

In the absence of sexual harassment laws, employers would naturally prefer a more forgiving approach.  There's a trade-off between preventing unwanted advances and preventing wanted advances - and there's no reason to choose a corner solution.  Treating harassment complaints as seriously as employee theft complaints is simply bad for business.  You might make a few puritan workers happy, but what about everybody else?



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Jane Doe writes:

Still not addressing this. Very attractive people (I'm working hard not to just say "women" here), love all the positive effects (social capital?) of being attractive. It becomes a large part of their success.

They just don't want any of the negative costs of that same attractiveness.

I don't see a parallel there with employee theft. Pilfering isn't directly related to some quality of a specific coworker. And theft is almost always from the general company pool resources.

Sexual harassment (or simply showing some sign of attraction) taxes the receiver's social skills, and requires them to make a nuanced response, that doesn't itself offend. It's a serious calorie burner. It's more like having a coworker ask if he can have one of your Twinkies, use your chap-stick, borrow your stapler repeatedly. You are put in the defensive position of dealing with the situation.

If there was a magical switch to turn off harassment, would attractive people be willing to accept it, if it made everyone completely blind to and immune from their attractiveness- negating their attractive advantages.

Fritz writes:

If you read the legal definition of "sexual harassment," another key difference from employee theft jumps out at you. A key component is "unwelcome sexual advances." This immediately raises an awkward question: How can anyone know if an advance is "unwelcome" until he actually makes the advance? You can't. The only safe strategy, then, is to make no advances whatsoever.

It isn't a "safe strategy" to make no advances because any statement or gesture -- or none at all -- can be labeled an "unwelcome sexual advance" by an accuser. Just as with race-discrimination charges, it's "guilty until proven innocent."

Peter writes:

This immediately raises an awkward question: How can anyone know if an advance is "unwelcome" until he actually makes the advance?

I feel the same way about rape. How should someone know she doesn't want sex until they do her?

She might say "stop" or "cut it out" but we know that's just her being playful she really actually likes it.

And, if she complains about it afterward, she might get punished! Awesome. There's no way she'll report it now! Thank god her rights, respect and dignity are worthless!

*sarcasm

dha writes:

"worker who tells the boss, "John is stealing from the company""

Well hang on - the business isn't the one being harassed, so this is a fault analogy. Why would my boss care if another worker was stealing from me personally? Meanwhile if I somehow sexually harassed, say, the board of directors, or a major shareholder, then probably I would be fired.

fel writes:

"In the absence of sexual harassment laws, employers would naturally prefer a more forgiving approach. "

Not clear that this would be the case. For instance, there is no law forbidding relationships in the workplace, yet many companies (or individual bosses) don't allow boss-subordinate or coworker-coworker relationships. There are reasons for this that have nothing to do with sexual harassment laws, like avoiding favoritism or not wanting to be put in the position of choosing between the employees in case the relationship goes sour.

"There's a trade-off between preventing unwanted advances and preventing wanted advances - and there's no reason to choose a corner solution."

But we're not at a corner solution. The unwanted advances must be pervasive or regular and detrimental to a reasonable person in order to hold up in a court of law. I can't imagine that, say, asking a coworker out and respecting their decision would meet the above criteria (and let's be honest, anyone with respect for others and a modicum of social skills wouldn't go much further than that). Avoiding making illegal advances isn't hard -- just get permission before touching and respect the other person.

blink writes:

Even for theft, "telling" may not be such a sure-fire solution for the employee. You mentioned the officer worker and janitor previously -- what will the employer to think about the co-worker who reports the missing three-hole punch and culprit?

Tattling very often sends a bad signal about the tattler, especially if that person defines an ambiguous concept strictly. If even theft can be questionable, then surely sexual harassment is even more uncertain.

liberty writes:

Peter and fel have it right: sexual harassment is not when someone asks a woman (or man) nicely whether they might want to have dinner some time. It's when someone grabs someone's ass, or otherwise touches them, or threatens them if they do not agree to sexual encounter, etc.

I think some here are dismissing sexual harassment as what it may be in ~ 2-3% of cases, which is a misunderstanding or flirtation taken poorly. This is generally NOT the case.

Do recall that 1 in 3 women have had some sort of sexual abuse, rape, molestation, or other unwanted sexual encounter - not unwanted flirtation but actual unwanted, i.e. coerced or forced, *sexual encounter.*

This happens less often to men but it still makes men look bad when they do not even recognize this fact - or worse dismiss it - especially as men are generally also the perpetrators of this violence.

_end rant_

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