2017 has been a year of reckoning when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. From the tech sector to politics, media, and entertainment, many powerful men have been exposed as serial sexual harassers, with records of misconduct sometimes years or decades long, and lost their jobs, were cut by sponsors, or had their projects canceled. In the business world, senior leaders and HR departments have been concerned with how this awakening may affect their organizations, but many business leaders are afraid to look into the issue because they don’t know what they might find. Are people in the company afraid to report harassment? Has anyone been committing misconduct and getting away with it?
While companies struggle with these challenges, several startups are developing technologies to make it safer and easier for employees to report experiences of sexual harassment, as well as for employers to respond to these reports.
Montreal-based startup Botler.ai is launching a chatbot to help employees in the US or Canada determine whether they have experienced sexual harassment. Khari Johnson of Venture Beat reports that the bot uses natural language processing based on a data set of over 300,000 court cases to determine if harassment has occurred and if there may be cause for legal action. If the user determines that he or she would like to report the incident to HR or law enforcement, the bot is also able to write up an incident report. This is a particularly helpful feature for victims as one major acknowledged barrier to sexual harassment reporting is the trauma of having to retell their story (and relive the incident) over and over again.
STOPit is an app that allows employees to anonymously report a wide variety of transgressions, from harassment to bullying, unethical business practices, and more. They can also provide video and photo evidence and begin a dialogue with “report managers” within the organization to either provide additional evidence or to chat further.
“Organizations are realizing that the investment in hotlines is simply not generating the return they need to protect them from the significant financial and reputational risks that come with behavior-based incidents,” STOPit CEO Todd Schobel told Fast Company’s Lydia Dishman. “Traditional 800-number reporting lines do not provide for direct and immediate follow up and often create more work for organizations and cost them valuable time when investigating an issue,” he later added.
Last month, Dishman’s Fast Company colleague Gwen Moran shined a spotlight on Empower Work, another technology that aims to address this business challenge through a combination of technological and human assistance. The app, released in beta back in August, is another chat-based service for reporting sexual harassment and other hard-to-talk-about issues at work, but has an actual counselor on the other end of the line and is more geared towards providing the user with relevant information and connecting them to public resources. “They are not there to give advice,” Moran explains, “but to help the employee come to his or her own conclusions or decisions and also act as a conduit to appropriate resources, [founder Jamie-Alexis] Fowler says.”
Bravely has a similar model as Empower Work, but perhaps with a bit more expertise. The site matches employees with independent HR professionals for a variety of possible conversation topics, including harassment. It is designed to be a truly independent third party in workplace incidents. The service will be free to employees and employers will pay a monthly fee depending on the company’s headcount, according to CNN Money’s Sarah Ashley O’Brien.
Claire Schmidt, a vice president at 21st Century Fox, recently stepped down to launch AllVoices, a site that will allow employees to anonymously report harassment directly to their CEO or board. CNN Money’s Laurie Segall reports that the company has financial backing from the founder of Tinder and the CEO of Zillow, while Susan Fowler, the Uber engineer whose blog post brought needed scrutiny to that company’s culture and helped ignite a broader conversation about harassment and sexism in tech, will be an advisor.
Another place where employees may discuss incidents of harassment or other toxic behaviors is on anonymous employee forums, with community platforms like Blind enabling employees to talk behind the boss’s back like never before. These forums were not designed with sexual harassment in mind, but still provide a safe and anonymous space to mention such experiences. By actively listening to the conversations on these platforms, employers may be able to surface unreported incidents, perpetrators, and other underlying problems within their company culture.
While all of these technologies have useful applications and can help organizations be more informed about misconduct in the workplace, the better to serve and protect their employees, business leaders will still need to take action and have the courage to step up to peers who may be averse to change or who minimize the importance of solving this problem. None of these solutions is a silver bullet to preventing workplace harassment or fixing a toxic culture, which can all too easily create an environment that enables or even encourages sexual harassers.