Bryan Caplan  

Harassment: A Keyhole Solution

Reminder: Talk at Webber Inter... Do deficits matter?...
Way back in The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford taught us the wonder of "keyhole solutions" for social ills:
Keyhole surgery techniques allow surgeons to operate without making large incisions, minimizing the risk of complications and side effects. Economists often advocate a similar strategy when trying to fix a policy problem: target the problem as closely as possible rather than attempting something a little more drastic.

How, then, can we fix health care?... [I]s there a 'keyhole' solution...?

So far, it's advocates of open borders who most frequently invoke keyhole solutionsMy forthcoming graphic novel with Zach Weinersmith has a whole chapter on the topic.  The idea, though, is universal.  Faced with any social problem, you can use a hand grenade... or a scalpel.  So why not carefully define the problem, then craft carefully targeted remedies with minimal collateral damage?

Case in point:

Over the last year, resentment of unwanted job-related sexual attention (better known as "sexual harassment") has gone from high to extreme.  It's easy to grasp why people would see such harassment as a problem.  The standard remedy, though, is to punish virtually all job-related sexual attention, wanted or not.  In practice, workplaces now discourage employees from dating each other - and heavily discourage mixed-status romance.

What explains the ubiquity of these broader policies?  Simple: It's hard to know in advance if sexual attention is unwanted.  (To quote Merlin in Excalibur, "Looking at the cake is like looking at the future, until you've tasted it what do you really know? And then, of course, it's too late.")  Especially if the person making an unwanted advance outranks you, you may be uncomfortable bluntly refusing.  The surest way to abolish unwanted attention is to abolish attention itself.

Unfortunately, the abolition of attention causes massive collateral damage.  People spend tons of time getting to know their co-workers.  As a result, many promising matches are discovered on the job.  Furthermore, humans find high status attractive.  As a result, attention from higher-status co-workers is often appealing.  Ban workplace romance, and you deprive many people of the partner of their dreams.  I don't want my kids to live in a world where fear crushes love.

What can be done?  Before I answer, let's back up.  In speed dating, a standard practice is to give every participant a list of names.  Men check off all the women they're interested in dating.  Women check off all the men they're interested in dating.  Once the results are in, organizers inform individuals about all cases of mutual interest.  The rest go in the trash. 

Thus, if Jack checks Sally and Jane, Tom checks Jane, Sally checks Tom, and Jane checks Jack, Jack and Jane are informed that they have a match.  But Sally never finds out that Jack liked her - and Tom never finds out that Sally liked him.  This doesn't just spare Jack and Sally the humiliation of being rejected.  It also spares Sally and Tom the awkwardness of having to reject.  Jack and Jane, in contrast, both get to enjoy each others' wanted attention.

So what's my keyhole solution for harassment?  Firms should adopt the speed dating paradigm.  Let everyone secretly record their feelings, if any, for their co-workers.  If the feelings are unrequited, no one ever finds out.  If the feelings are mutual, however, both parties receive official confirmation.  And unless they edit their recorded preferences, they waive their right to complain about (or sue over) unwanted attention from whoever they explicitly approved.

How is this better than the status quo?  Simple: It retains standard rules against unwanted attention, but gives people a safe way to take a chance on love.  Indeed, my proposal even shields everyone from the knowledge that someone has unrequited feelings for them.  Don't want to know how anyone feels about you?  Then check zero boxes, and you're safe.

The most obvious objection is that people could change their minds.  But I've already got that covered: If you decide you no longer welcome someone's attention, you edit your preferences - and they get a polite email informing them of your wishes.  Worried that they won't listen?  Then don't check them in the first place.

Couldn't an aggressive harasser pressure someone to consent?  Of course.  But that's also true in the current system.  The key difference: Under my proposal, pressuring someone to consent would be unambiguous evidence of unwanted attention.  The status quo, in contrast, affords everyone some plausible deniability.

The strongest objection, in my view, is that this keyhole solution for harassment would make adultery highly convenient.  The simplest remedy is to rewrite the program so married employers can't check boxes.  If that seems overly restrictive to my polyamorous friends, this rule could be overridden with spousal consent.

OK, so why should profit-seeking employers adopt my keyhole solution?  Legally, it provides both clarity and protection.  It draws a bright line between wanted and unwanted attention - and shields the former from legal liability.  Practically, my proposal helps recruitment and retention by raising worker satisfaction.  My proposal gives employees the best of both worlds: protection from unwanted attention combined with opportunities for wanted attention.

Do I seriously expect my proposal to catch on?  Sadly, no.  Most people are too emotional about harassment to even acknowledge the main trade-offs.  No successful politician would currently be foolish enough to advocate even slight liberalization of existing laws.  But I'd still like to hear your views on how well my idea would work if implemented.  Why not?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Peter Gerdes writes:

Personally, I'm a big fan of your suggestions but I suspect one major objection will be that it only deals with one type of sexual harassment/issue while avoiding others.

In particular, this makes the problem of the boss dolling out favors/promotions to those employees who have sexual relations with him/her worse by making the process of discovering interest and pursuing officially accepted and much easier. This then creates the problem of people feeling pressured to say yes to romantic interest to receive job benefits.

I, personally, believe that can be dealt with in other ways and that the problem is much worse when people have secret relationships that society nevertheless implicitly condones but with official consequences to disclosure creating strong pressure not to report non-extreme misdeeds by someone you had a secret relationship with.

Also, from an employers standpoint there is the problem of harassment/retaliation after a relationship which can also be considered sexual harassment. This is especially difficult as society grants a certain amount of leeway to people who have been especially emotionally hurt. Imagine manager Matt retaliates against Employee Emily by giving her the most annoying work assignments for the month after she cheats on him with his best friend. The legal rules are unlikely to permit the store flexibility to decide that Emily treated Matt so badly he should only be lightly reprimanded but in such a situation coming down hard could be bad for employee moral. Better from the company's point of view to just bar such relationships and give both parties an incentive not to bring their squabble up to higher management.

caryatis writes:

Your suggestion assumes that "interested in sexual interaction/not interested" is a binary. Not so. Sally might well initially want to date Jim, but be unhappy when Jim gropes her or rapes her or tells her incessant dirty jokes. Under your proposal, she could then edit her preferences--but the harm to her has already been done.

And conversely, the groper or rapist or dirty joke teller might not want to date the people he targets. Most sexual harassment is not about innocently intended advances.

(I'm not suggesting that rape and dirty jokes are equivalent. But any proposal about sexual harassment has to consider the wide range of behavior we're talking about.)

Derrick writes:

While I would consider the proposal as presented to be better than the status quo, I don't believe that companies would go for it. Companies discourage amorous relationships among their workers to limit sexual harassment concerns on the front end of the relationships but they also wish to limit negative work situations on the back end of relationships that don't work out. You might include a box designating which employee is willing to transfer upon a break-up but I'm not sure the workers would approve.

Josh S writes:

The other comments point out some larger problems with this approach. In addition, any implementation would have worry about potential abuse of the system.

A simple example of gaming the system would be an employee "A" who checks the box for everyone, which means that anyone who checked "A"s box would be a match. Some additional rules could mitigate this but it's a thorny problem, especially for small groups.

Even worse, someone will have access to all this very personal data, which opens it to abuse. If the data is accessible internally by people at a high level, it makes them even more powerful in their potential harassment. You could also outsource control of data (though I imagine higher ups would still demand access to the data) which opens the possibility for abuse by the supplier.

Christophe Biocca writes:

I think the biggest obstacle to something like this is that the employer doesn't really benefit from workplace relationships. So while speed dating services would adopt such a solution (because getting people matched up is essentially 100% of their value proposition), an employer adopting this still runs into problems, even if all harrasment issues are resolved:

  • Spouse/SO favoritism (or even just the impresssion of it) is still an issue.
  • Break-ups and divorces still can make a huge mess in the workplace.

Employees would benefit but employers generally wouldn't (beyond having slightly happier employees). Arguably that means companies that do this would be able to compensate people less at the margin, but how big of an actual benefit to employees is this policy vs. having a rarely enforced stricter rule?

The general idea is a good one, and it keeps appearing in various forms in all sorts of contexts (someone built a prototype for the residence I lived in back when I was in university). But the actual benefit for employers seems too low.

Salem writes:

Other people have made reasonable technical objections above. But I still think you're missing the bigger picture.

We are hypocrites on this issue. Your solution, mildly tweaked, would probably work tolerably well at achieving its stated goals, but what about the real goals? What makes you think that the aim is minimal intrusion into people's romantic attachments, as opposed to some much more Hansonian story where sexual norm enforcement is also about status and rivalry?

Thaomas writes:

Another example is to advocate for higher EITC instead of higher minimum wages.

David writes:

I think that your proposal might increase sexual relationships in the workplace, which, if we disregard the details of the relationship, is likely to increase sexual harassment issues. The question then is will your method be particularly effective at promoting only "no-harassment" kinds of relationships. As others have pointed out, harassment can occur in relationships that are initially mutually desired. My inclination, not knowing more, is that the increase in sex will easily trump the decrease in a specific kind of unwanted attention, and that your proposal will lead to more harassment problems overall.

Rocinante writes:

This sounds really burdensome for workplaces that are often getting new employees or employees changing their minds.

BW writes:

I wonder if your system actually would provide clear, unambiguous evidence of sexual harassment. Because maybe a firm implementing this system could adopt a no-tolerance policy for anyone making a sexual pass without going through the proper channels; the firm might reason that anyone who violates this policy is highly unlikely to have a benign reason for doing so. But what about flirting? An explicit joke or an invitation to lunch might be viewed as a sexual pass. And maybe rightly so, but it can be difficult to be attractive to someone without first being humorous or charming around them. So a potential suitor might face a chicken/egg problem.

But maybe your solution would reduce the scope of the problem sufficiently to make the problem manageable. Then again, it seems a lot of the #MeToo stories are stories about predatory men isolating, baiting, and then pressuring their victims into sex. Worse still, these men's superiors often covered up their behavior. And it might not matter what system a company has in place if there are no witnesses to sexual abuse or if executives refuse to punish abusers.

Hazel Meade writes:

I don't see why this common sense rule isn't adequate:

If it happens once, maybe twice, it's not harrassment. You just say you're not interested, and the other person takes no for an answer. End of story.

If it keeps happening repeatedly, THEN it's harassment.

How is this not obvious? Why is there anything else left to argue about?

Miguel Madeira writes:

A problem of this model is that the frontier "wants to have a relationship"/"does not want to have a relationship" is not much clear - there are many intermediate steps (like beginning by having lunch together, for example).

Miguel Madeira writes:

Hazel Meade,

Your common sense rule does not solve the problem "if the person making an unwanted advance outranks you, you may be uncomfortable bluntly refusing"

J B writes:

Unfortunately sexual harrassment manifests itself in many ways beyond attempts to engage in a romantic relationship. What about repeatedly touching someone's arm or shoulder? Or sexual jokes or innuendos seemingly directed at no one in particular but clearly within earshot of an intended target? I don't see a keyhole solution for situations like these.

J Mann writes:

For some reason, I'm reminded of Lightning Rods.

Seriously, it's not a terrible idea, but still kind of funny.

Jesse Connell writes:

Tinder Enterprise Edition. Then the company just needs to require the employee to register and maintain an account.

Hazel Meade writes:

Your common sense rule does not solve the problem "if the person making an unwanted advance outranks you, you may be uncomfortable bluntly refusing"

True, but I don't think "feeling uncomfortable refusing" amounts to harassment. For example, your feelings might be unjustified, because you don't know in advance that the person who outranks you is going to retaliate against you for refusing. If the higher ranking person accepts that fact that you declined gracefully and takes no further action, then what is there to be uncomfortable about. True, people's feelings can get hurt, but that's part of being an adult. If a junior employee hurts your feelings, it's your responsibility to accept it and move on. It's harassment if the senior person tries to get revenge. But it's not harassment if they take no for an answer. Just being afraid that you might get harassed if you say no is not in itself harassment.


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