The HR chatbot helping employees report sexual harassment at work

March 28, 2018

The HR chatbot helping employees report sexual harassment at workImage by Ditty_about_summer / Shutterstock, IncA very recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management, found that 76 percent of non-manager employees who experienced sexual harassment at work within the last year, did not report it. But now, a new HR chatbot, Spot, has been launched, which aims to help reluctant employees log instances of sexual harassment at work, via an anonymous and impartial 3rd party.

Why people don’t report sexual harassment at work

There are a lot of documented reasons explaining why employees could be reluctant to report sexual harassment at work. For example:

  1. They worry about losing their job. According to Psychology Today, one of the biggest reasons, is a fear of the consequences – for example, if they report their boss, they may feel at risk of losing their job. People also report a fear of losing credibility in the workplace.
  2. They want people to know them for doing a good job at work. In an article by the Financial Times, it is explained that some victims of sexual harassment feel that if they report it, they will become known as the person who brought forward a sexual harassment claim – not as the person who was really good at their job.
  3. They are made to feel it is their fault for having no sense of humour. The Huffington Post explains how many instances of sexual harassment are presented as ‘office banter’ or ‘just having a laugh’ – and that the person being harassed is in the wrong if they see it as anything more than a joke.

What is Spot?

Spot is an automated chatbot that combines memory science and artificial intelligence, to help tackle harassment and discrimination at work. The bot encourages victims of harassment or discrimination to file a report, which is then encrypted. The report can then be sent to the employee, or if they wish, they can ask Spot to send the report anonymously to their employer.

What’s interesting, is how Spot picks out certain keywords in the conversation. After submitting a test report, based on a made up story, Spot began to ask me to talk more about the names and places I had mentioned.

The bot was built by a team of scientists and engineers, who were concerned by research showing that harassment and discrimination is dramatically underreported.

Why talk to a robot instead of a person?

I feel like in theory, Spot does a good job of removing a lot of the obstacles associated with reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. For a start, it’s much easier to talk to a robot than it is to talk to a person. There’s no fear of judgement, or emotional reaction.

But because the report could, in theory, remain completely anonymous forever, it removes the fear associated with any sort of reaction, which could impact the employee’s job or reputation.

Keeping a report anonymous forever may seem pointless, of course. But because Spot creates a secure, time-stamped record of your incident, you can relax knowing you’ve made a log of the event, which could be used as evidence in future – for example, if you need time to gather the confidence; or, if you’re reporting a smaller incident, and are worried it may progress into something more serious.

Spot is a nice option – but it isn’t a turnkey solution to reporting sexual harassment

Fast Company published a very bold article about Spot in February this year, leading with a title that claimed “this chatbot will take your harassment claims to HR anonymously”. But I’m not sure the people who talk to Spot would actually see it this way.

It works fine in this respect if, for example, there is a problem employee who is behaving inappropriately towards lots of people – one person could report the behaviour, with no fear that it could be linked back to them personally. But no matter how good your HR department is at confidentiality, many employees are still highly unlikely to believe that they can describe an incident in any sort of detail, without it somehow being linked to their name.

Spot is a great HR chatbot. And I believe it gives employees a new, much-needed avenue to consider reporting sexual harassment or discrimination via. But if you care about stamping out sexual harassment in your workplace – and you should – then it’s going to take more than just pointing employees in the direction of an anonymous chatbot.

Five ways to improve your sexual harassment policy

Georgene Huang, writing for Forbes, says there are five things you should do as an employer to improve your sexual harassment policy:

  1. Have a formal policy. This might sound very obvious, but you can’t enforce a sexual harassment policy that doesn’t actually exist. Make sure it’s clear, and well circulated.
  2. Make your policy zero tolerance. If employees are worried that sexual harassment will go unpunished, then they probably won’t bother to report it. Georgene Huang suggests a ‘one strike and you’re out’ approach.
  3. Talk about your policy. Have your managers acting as evangelists – your policy is no good sitting in a handbook. Start a discussion, and keep that discussion going!
  4. Include an anti-retaliation clause. In most locations, it’s already illegal to retaliate in a negative way to a sexual harassment claim. But if you specify this in your company policy, it’s a good way of underlining that law with permanent marker!
  5. Don’t forbid employees from filing a lawsuit. Some companies have a policy that prevents victims from filing lawsuits. This could further serve to silencing victims, and making them afraid to report incidents for fear of what will happen to them, while nothing happens to the perpetrator.

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