Technology tools take on sexual harassment at work

Posted on Apr 30, 2019 :: Partner
Posted by Ann Potratz, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

In the not-too-distant past, the idea of employers using technology like apps and virtual reality to report, investigate and prevent sexual harassment might have sounded like something from a futuristic movie. However, the reckoning brought on by the #MeToo movement has prompted many employers to seek out better methods for combating workplace harassment.

Apps offer easier reporting

Employees who fail to report perceived sexual harassment frequently say they didn’t know where to turn for help, especially when their managers were involved in the harassment. Today, instead of expecting employees who need help to contact
specific people or hotline numbers, employers have begun turning to apps for help.

Especially helpful for large employers with multiple locations, these apps allow employees to ask questions, suggest ideas and lodge complaints. They may even remain anonymous if they choose, which could encourage reporting in situations where employees don’t know where to turn.

And because employee-facing apps capitalize on the one thing most people have readily available — their ever-present smartphones — employers don’t have to worry they’ll be misplaced or disregarded, unlike, say, a handbook or policy.

Software helps manage complicated investigations

After receiving a complaint of sexual harassment, employers are legally obligated to conduct a thorough, fair and accurate investigation to determine what happened. This may sound straightforward on the surface, but human nature can complicate the process with emotion, dishonesty, preconceived notions and even implicit biases.

New software helps employers avoid these pitfalls with clear roadmaps to conduct sexual harassment investigations. Loaded with tools such as question lists developed by experts to eliminate bias, as well as notices employers can distribute to inform employees of their rights, this type of software can add clarity and organization to an otherwise messy process.

The software can also assist with recordkeeping and notetaking, which can play an important role if companies need to defend themselves in court. Agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will look for evidence that employers developed and executed a plan to respond to harassment.

Technology can help prevent sexual harassment, too

Roleplaying can be an incredibly effective technique when used in conjunction with training, but it can get uncomfortable fast when the topic is sexual harassment. Studies have shown when employees are uncomfortable during training, they tend to check out and disengage from learning.

To combat this, companies have begun designing virtual reality (VR) training tools that allow employees to step into the shoes of an innocent bystander witnessing an episode of workplace harassment. Experiencing real-world examples of sexual harassment in an immersive VR setting helps employees understand how they might react and defuse these tricky situations before they escalate.

When paired with classic teaching techniques, these VR programs help reinforce the bystander approach to training, which has proven more effective than other methods. It also helps employees avoid the awkwardness of being pigeonholed as either the victim or the offender during roleplaying. Another benefit of witnessing virtual harassment firsthand? Employees simultaneously (and subconsciously) learn what harassment looks like, meaning they are learning how not to become harassers themselves. Now that’s progress.

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Ann Potratz is an associate editor on the human resources publishing team at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. She researches and creates content for a variety of employment-related subject matters and contributes to a number of human resources products. Ann specializes in employment law issues such as discrimination and harassment, background checks, and security.