Sexual harassment and our addiction to “more data”

We can empower people to solve this problem themselves and in the process give the government the data it wants

Joshua Davis
Aug 23 · 14 min read
Senator Gillibrand plays Oliver Twist opposite William Wiatrowski (BLS)

Why do you need this data to begin with?

In the meme above Senator Gillibrand (as Oliver Twist) asks the BLS for more data. Memes aside, the issue of sexual harassment is a very serious one. When 22 Senators wrote the BLS to request that they “collect data on the economic costs of sexual harassment in the workforce,” they were told, “collecting this information would be complex and costly.” This wasn’t an outright refusal but it wasn’t the BLS stating their willingness to help either. Why did the BLS and later the GAO seem unwilling to respond to the senators’ request for this data? Was the senators’ request unreasonable?

Before getting into the exciting analysis where we examine the BLS’s response, let’s try and understand why this data is needed in the first place (spoiler alert: its not). Senator Gillibrand responded to Buzzfeed’s request for comment by saying:

Harassment can inhibit a worker’s ability to do their best work, excel, earn a promotion, or even stay employed … We need to calculate the real economic cost of workplace harassment, and I’m going to keep fighting for this data until we have it.

Still this doesn’t tell us what difference it would make in terms of legislation they would be able to pass if they had this data vs. if it were absent. In fact you can’t find a single meaningful description of the type of legislation they would pass if they did have this data. Since when does having data provide congress a mandate for passing legislation historically speaking? In the past they seemed eager to pass legislation in the absence of having data. So long as the beneficiaries are powerful corporations I don’t think you need data to pass laws in congress or even to understand what the impact of a law will be.

Since these Senators have never clearly stated:

  • If the data shows result A we will respond by passing legislation X
  • If the data shows result B we will respond by passing legislation Y
  • If the data shows result C we will respond by passing legislation Z

let’s just assume they don’t have a plan and their request for data is purely political posturing in response to social pressure to show the public that they are “doing something.” If they were serious about passing legislation, they would remove an employers ability to impose forced arbitration agreements as a requirement for employment. You don’t need data to know that’s the right thing to do. If I’m wrong I’m willing to admit I’m wrong, but I won’t be the first person whose been skeptical of a politician whose said they needed “more data.” But as the title suggests,

I don’t believe we should wait for the government to solve this problem. Instead we should give people the power to solve this problem themselves now.

First let’s consider the response of the BLS.

Was the BLS’s response reasonable?

Only two people have ever completed the American Ninja Warrior challenge and achieved total victory. If I had to guess which is easier:

  • Training for and completing the American Ninja Warrior challenge.
  • Designing a policy that would allow the BLS to collect the data requested.

I’d assume that although both tasks are pretty hard, I’d have a better chance putting together a team that was capable of achieving the first objective. Let’s see why this is by looking at the response:

Questions about workplace harassment are very sensitive in nature. Employers may have difficulty providing the data you are requesting, as such information may not always be reported by victims and the release of such information may be subject to privacy or other restrictions. Also, like most voluntary federal statistical surveys, BLS surveys have experienced declining response rates in recent years. Requesting additional information, especially information that is sensitive in nature, may have detrimental effects on survey response.

BLS identifies surveys as an ineffective means of obtaining this data because:

  • The questions being asked are sensitive in nature.
  • Employers may find it difficult to provide this data.
  • Victims may fail to report harassment.
  • Incidents may be subject to privacy protections.
  • BLS survey participation is declining and asking people sensitive questions will have ‘detrimental effects’ on their ability to gather other data.

Put yourself in the shoes of the BLS for a second

If you’ve ever been a CSR you know the TMI look™ when you see it

If you know anything about calling up strangers and asking them survey questions over the phone, you intuitively know that what these Senators were asking for was a complete non-starter. If you don’t believe me, let’s imagine how awkward one of these conversations might sound like:

BLS: Uh hi, yes I’m calling from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and I just needed to gather some data to be compiled into our statistical reports. All of the answers you provide are completely anonymous and will not in any way reflect poorly on you or your company.

BLS: Do you have a written policy that encourages employees to report incidents of sexual harassment when they occur?

BLS: Are you aware of any sexual harassment claims which have been filed by employees of your company in the last six months? Uh huh. I see.

BLS: Can you elaborate as to whether or not any incidents of sexual assault resulted in any legal action taken by any employee or former employee against your company?

Just casually reading these questions in a blog post feels incredibly awkward. If you haven’t been convinced that this isn’t going to work yet, read these questions out loud to one of your coworkers. Ask them to imagine having to answer yes to one of these questions. You don’t really think that’s actually going to work do you?

Given BLS’s reasonable response is it possible to design a system that can collect this data:

  • Without asking sensitive questions?
  • Without relying on employers to provide access to data?
  • When victims decide not to report harassment to authorities?
  • While still maintaining privacy protections for the victims?
  • Without bothering BLS to help in data collection?

The answer surprisingly is yes.

How do you get this data without conducting a survey?

Ok inquisitive koala and confession bear, I’ma let you enjoy your surveys

Gee, if only there was a way for communities of female employees to self-insure. Then they could come together to form coverage groups within their company or organization. By providing each other coverage for incidents classified as sexual harassment they could create this data. By shifting the task of reporting away from employers the dynamic which has lead to high rates of self censorship can finally change. Members wouldn’t have to worry about potential retaliation from their employer or other employees when they file a claim. This is because the requirements for filing a claim within the group are separate from the formal process of filing a complaint with HR or management. Given this dynamic, victims of the group are less likely to underreport incidents of harassment.

True peer-to-peer insurance requires blockchain technology to work. Given that the group would want to avoid burdensome insurance regulations they would likely use the blockchain to hold their premiums and award claim payments. This would create a record that would provide exactly the data that the Senators requested without the need of any outside groups to perform any surveys. It would also provide the perfect level of privacy as the only information that would be known to the public would be:

  • How many people are paying premiums within the group and what is their value.
  • How many people were awarded claims within the group and what was their value.

No other information would be publicly available such as:

  • Name of the victim or the alleged harasser
  • Details of the harassment
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And you get all of this without needing to make a single phone call to any employers! Insurance is a force to be reckoned with and you underestimate its power at your peril. Decentralized protocols will allow insurance to become far more pervasive to coordinate groups in society than we could have ever possibly imagined. Insurance will demonstrate the true nature of the force of decentralization.

As of this writing Focal Point™ hasn’t been tested and made production ready yet. Still this is a problem we’ve known how to solve for about a year now.

So how does it work?

Many of the basic aspects of Focal Point™ work very similarly to how TandaPay works. Rather than focus on mechanics which are covered in other posts, it is more valuable to focus on the benefits of using the software. The easiest way to understand the software is to understand it from the point of view of the different groups who will benefit from its use.

Who stands to benefit?

  • Victims of abuse: Victims are much more likely to disclose the abuse to a member of their peer group than they are to HR or management. Victims may not be certain if the abuse they received has crossed the line of impropriety until they speak to someone whom they trust. After an initial consultation the victim and a peer follow a fact based, discovery process. Guided by the groups charter, they can determine if they have sufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof required. If they feel it is appropriate then they can submit a claim to the group for approval. This whole process takes place among the victim’s peers and it shields the victim from any form of retaliation by anyone in the company.
  • Employees: They now have a tamper-proof, permanent record of history which represents their perspective. Claims are 100% approved by the group. Management + HR are not participants in the claims approval process. Privacy of the victims is completely maintained so long as the group remains relatively small (caveat: it requires everyone in the group to sign non-disclosure agreements).
  • Corporate lawyers: Think corporate governance for lawsuit mitigation on steroids💪⚡. Lawyers love this product. It is not merely whistleblowing software, it is a legal record they can use in a court of law. When groups of employees reject a fellow employees claim it means that the claim has no merit in the eyes of their peers. Approval of false claims have the highest penalties permissible. A record where employees pay premiums every month but never approve any claims is a clean bill of health for a corporation. Such a record allows lawyers to defend their clients against any allegations of sexual harassment. It renders any claims of sexual harassment as being either moot or patently false in a court of law.
  • The government: The data that these Senators wanted is provided in a publicly accessible record. New data is released on a monthly basis, no need to wait for a yearly or quarterly report to come out. BLS is never required to perform any surveys to obtain this data. No private information is ever revealed so securing the record imposes no potential liability risk that private information will ever be leaked. There are potential upgrades to the system that would allow a victim to submit additional information directly to the government. Without revealing their identity they could provide information directly to policy makers that could be used to assist in their efforts to write new legislation.
  • Shareholders: Shareholders love this product because it gives them real time on the ground data as to how employees are being treated with regard to this issue. It prevents them from seeing huge swings in a stock price when a brand is suddenly tarnished by lurid #metoo revelations. Long before a major lawsuit becomes public or a scandal breaks out on social media they have visibility on the issue. Corporations can protect their brand from damage without needing to cover everything up all the time. This is because the system imposes just the right amount of transparency initially without providing any details. This initial transparency prompts negotiations that allows for a process of deescalation by both sides. The goal is to prevent media blowups from exposing licentious details which bring damage to the brand.

Who stands to lose?

  • Sexual harassers and abusers: Abusers hate this product. Now they can no longer manipulate the system to retaliate against their victims. When a claim is filed they are unaware of any accusation of wrongdoing even after the claim has been verified by the group as being true.
  • Human Resources: HR dislikes this product. This is because it falls outside the scope of what they can control. They cannot control the record or its contents. They have their doubts that allowing employees to participate might violate corporate policies in some way. They understand the world of grievances, settlements, non-disclosure agreements, and severance payments used to buy peoples’ silence.

The current system forces a victim to request help from HR. In the new system HR is directed by a claim to seek out a victim and offer their help.

The power dynamic has changed and HR’s role in this new system is unfamiliar. The old system valued a victim’s silence, the new system gives victims the privilege to speak. If our goal is to give employees the ability to negotiate for a more inclusive and less toxic workplace, the way to do this is not by silencing them. Only time will tell if HR can be convinced to see the value in giving victims greater power to change a corporations culture for the better.

Important points to remember:

  • This post doesn’t cover the complex intersection between an insurance-like platform and whistleblowing software. In this system premiums and claims take on a completely different meaning.
  • The “premium” that members pay doesn’t seek to compensate victims for the value of their “loss.” The compensation any policy could provide victims of sexual harassment is inadequate relative to the harm a victim experiences.
  • In this system money is tied to speech. Money provides speech with a value that is both meaningful to members of the group and to others within the company. Given the insistence that people should “put their money where their mouth is,” it follows that the value of a premium should be something each group decides for themselves.
  • Ask yourself, “how meaningful would a claim be if it cost each member $1 when a claim was approved?” How meaningful would it be if it cost each member $100 to approve a claim? The value of a single claim is determined prior to the start of the month before the group becomes aware of any harassment. Rather than being tied to the harm inflicted upon the victim, it is instead tied to the importance this issue has to the members of the group.
  • The members of the group are signaling to others outside of the group, “this claim has validity and we are willing to stake our funds to prove it.” If the value of a premium is quite high, then it gives members adequate incentive to find fault with a claim and not approve it. If the value of a claim is too low, then the members could potentially approve claims with little incentive to question a claim’s validity.

OK but what is Focal Point™?

Its a modification of a peer-to-peer insurance protocol that provides a useful corporate governance tool for large corporations and government agencies. Given a novel method, it uses charters to coordinate people to reach fast consensus. Charters are a much longer topic of conversation but the following gives a good introduction.

Trust should be based on the social contract

The Focal Point™ protocol does something unique. It takes specific values and makes them a focal point around which everyone’s actions are coordinated. If you’ve never heard of a focal point before it can be described as,

“the default option that people choose because they expect others will choose it.”

Julia Galef does an excellent job of explaining how this works by giving a great example from Good Will Hunting.

Vitalik Buterin then applies the concept of creating a set of explicit norms at the formation of a community when asked what advice he would give Satoshi.

Unchained Live: Laura Shin in conversation with Vitalik Buterin

Laura Shin: What advice would you give Satoshi?

Vitalik Buterin: Set explicit norms in writing. For example set an explicit direction in writing. One of the things that we did for Ethereum early on is we said, “we want to do proof of stake and sharding.” We’ve said that even all the way since 2014 and 2015 and that helped because it creates this community agreement. (This agreement is) that Ethereum is a chain that technically evolves (over time) and proposals that change (Ethereum) in the spirit of those ideas should be adopted. I think that the social contract of possible technical improvements is something that has served us very well. It probably prevented a lot of arguments that could have led to stagnation.

If those ideas had not been (clearly communicated) there could have been a much larger contingent who could have (argued against proof of stake and sharding. They could have insisted that the Ethereum community) keep the chain exactly as it is or go in some totally different direction.

So I think trying to set a more explicit path for future improvements is definitely something that (Satoshi) could have done to significantly improve the outcome.

The right values coordinate people for everyone’s benefit — trust the values first, then the people

The charter (blue) is the master plan that allows everyone’s contribution to match the values of the community

Based on the above two examples we have learned that:

  1. A good focal point is one that embodies a well defined set of norms that everyone can understand. It implies that most people also expect others to both understand and adopt these guidelines as their own.
  2. By clearly defining the norms of a community in writing at its inception we can better establish a set of shared values and reach those values together.

This is exactly what Focal Point™ does. It does so by using charters which are the social contract of a community. This social contract is the focal point for the group. A charter both coordinates and incentivizes the actions of the participants. Charters serve to put a groups values into words and this is how they go beyond the creation of financial incentives to focus on rewards and penalties that are non-monetary. In more specific terms, it provides the rules that allow anyone to reach a conclusion as to whether or not an insurance claim is valid. Charters are the means by which a community gives itself the authority to award a claim that represents a community’s values.

By combining monetary and non-monetary incentives, we can establish a framework of trust that allows for communities to be built with the help of decentralized applications. Participants trust “the rules defined by the protocol” first, then based on these rules they can trust other members of their community. Within the context of shared values defined by the charter and incentives created by the architecture, communities can be built on mutual trust. This trust however doesn’t require that the participants compromise on the ideals of decentralization when it comes to considering how the protocol should hold funds.

Why is trust still needed?

We are required to make an important distinction between the financial aspects and the social aspects of app architecture. The financial architecture which manages money, is decentralized and requires the removal of third party custodians. The social architecture which coordinates people, has a central moderator who serves as a trusted partner to facilitate relationships between people in their group. We want to see communities established where trust is based off of the social contract which guarantees participants share the same values. Once the blockchain removes the legal liabilities associated with managing funds, communities will have a greater capacity to self-organize and award claims which represent those values.

    Joshua Davis

    Written by

    Incentives architect for TandaPay

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