The announcements of the firings of Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were watershed moments in the history of sexual harassment. They marked the first day I can recall that we learned about powerful men harassing women after they were punished. The recent revelations involving Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Brett Ratner, Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Russell Simmons, and Kevin Spacey preceded their punishments, and those of politicians Al Franken, Roy Moore, John Conyers¹, and Donald Trump have preceded… well, a complete lack of consequences so far, but we’ll see.
The Lauer and Keillor revelations suggest there’s a real method for driving out harassment in the workplace, admittedly one that hasn’t worked very well in the past. But I think its time is now. To understand it, it helps to know how game theorists think about veto players.
In cooperative game theory, the veto player is a player who belongs to all winning coalitions. Whoever the veto player allies with, that player will win, as will the veto player. This leads to policy instability. If you want to adopt a new policy or continue an old one, you need the consent of the veto player, or you need the veto player to disappear. And if you can’t get either of those to happen, you have only one possible winning strategy: you must find or create a second veto player that doesn’t have a reason to ally with the first one. That’s how you get policy stability.
In business, bosses are often seen as veto players. An owner, president, or CEO who has ultimate control of the workplace must agree to all changes to the workplace. So if you want to stop sexual harassment in a boss’s workplace, the boss must agree publicly that any employee including the boss will suffer gravely if they harass others, and employees must mandate their agreement. The employees then become the second veto player, and policy stabilizes.
Disclaimer: I am a veto player. I’m an owner who has ultimate control of the workplace. Statistically, I am much more likely to be a victimizer than a victim. So the small company I own has a crystal clear policy on the subject: Our employees will be safe. It’s a policy that applies not only in our office but at conventions and game stores and everywhere we go. It’s a policy I mandated, and it applies to my behavior as well as everyone else’s.
The Weinstein Company didn’t have such a policy until 2015, and it very clearly did not apply to Harvey Weinstein. That’s because Weinstein enforced his position as a veto player. He could act with impunity because he made people into millionaires and stars. To take him down required deep reporting and dozens of high-profile women willing to speak out about their ordeals. That is an impossibly high bar to clear when the veto player is the problem.
But Lauer—just as much a veto player as Weinstein—crumbled after a single allegation. Here’s how Lauer reacted, per a source that spoke to People.
“He was shocked and dumbfounded and completely bewildered by what happened,” the source said. “He never thought it would get to this level. He never expected this. He had felt like he was invulnerable — like Superman.”
Turns out Superman is not invulnerable. After the firing, other women came forward against Lauer, but did you notice something? Unlike with the accusers who brought down Weinstein, you never learned their names. Because honestly, that’s how it’s supposed to work. When someone alleges harassment, their life shouldn’t be required to be turned inside-out for them to be taken seriously. Management should investigate and, if appropriate, act. The court of public opinion doesn’t get a vote, and it shouldn’t need one.
There were a few perfect-storm conditions in Lauer’s case: a victim willing to come forward, women who corroborated her story and revealed patterns of behavior, and a management willing to listen. It’s reasonable to ask: why was it willing to listen? The #metoo campaign that rose after the Weinstein allegations is a probable reason, but what it does might not be obvious.
What #metoo has done is created an ability for women in an organization to band together and threaten the health of the organization if it doesn’t enforce the highest standards. Their external remedies are becoming obvious even to the least empathetic of bosses: reputation loss, monetary loss, talent loss, and (in The Weinstein Company’s case) possible company loss.
One harassed woman on her own can’t easily become a second veto player. It takes multiple women who believe her and hold the organization to the fire. Multiple men too. The network has to exist before the problem does, or at the very least it has to build itself fast when it discovers that the problem exists. It’s got to steamroll the Nancy Pelosi-like enablers that can’t see the problem. As hard as it is to do against the powerful men who prey, it’s got to win.
And it might be doing so. NBC News had routine anti-harassment training — online, if you can believe it — but is now instituting in-person training and other measures. Whatever remains of The Weinstein Company will assuredly have a solid policy, or it won’t have any employees. The Met just figured out this is multidimensional issue, as it needed to do some serious work over the weekend on its James Levine problem. Given Pelosi’s about-face, we might even see change in Congress—heck, after Billy Bush smashed Trump in the Times on Sunday, we might even see change at the White House.
OK, probably not this White House. But despite that, I anticipate that most organizations will re-examine their policies as their neanderthal overlords crash and burn around them. About damn time.
This is the ninth installment of a series of posts on politics and game theory. Earlier posts covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, the deficit, and the NFL. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.
¹ The day after I published this, Conyers resigned his seat. A few days later, Franken announced his resignation. Moore still ran, and Trump endorsed him, and both lost the Alabama Senate race.