Friday, March 21, 2014

The credibility and reliability of claims concerning harassment and bias.

In the news these days are stories of military situations where those who have claimed to have been sexually harassed have been judged wanting in credibility or reliability.  Some of the time, where there is smoke, there must be fire, but some of the time it's just fog. My suspicion is that something untoward has occurred, the claims are likely the case, but the claimants have been disbelieved.

This is not unusual in the history of sexual harassment, and much effort has been made to give the claimants a fairer shake. In the past, it is clear that there has been a big effort to get rid of the claim and the claimant (almost always a woman, against a man). So the current efforts are appropriate.

But, once a legal or even an investigatory process begins, it is likely that the claimant will be tested as to their credibility (are they truth-tellers?) and reliability (is their account accurate?).

If the claimant has a history of making such claims, or a history of unreliability (in job performance, or other such), it is likely that their claims will be subject to challenge. (Yet, of course, that claim of harassment may well be true.)

Also, even in non legal contexts, the investigators are likely to take into account the impact of the claim on the supposed perpetrator's reputation, and want to be sure that the claimant is credible and reliable. Hence, it behooves the investigator to check the background of the claimant without impugning the current claim. Of course, the investigator will be checking on the counter-claims of the supposed perpetrator.

For example, if the claimant is known to be hyperbolic in their other claims in other contexts, how do you handle their current claim. If the claimant turns out to have been otherwise trying for some favor from the accused (job advancement, for example), again the current claim is subject to some doubt. And perhaps the claimant has misinterpreted what happened, and there are witnesses or video evidence of the event that suggest that it is a misinterpretation.

This is not a happy situation. Let us say that the claimant feels that their claim is warranted, and is not up to some sort of revenge. The claimant may well feel that they have not been vindicated, largely because their claim is polluted by their past behavior. And the accused rarely has a chance to fully clear themselves.

What's the lesson? Likely, it is that our adjudicatory and investigatory processes are imperfect--especially when it is one person's word against another's. More to the point, social processes don't solve every problem and issue.

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