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For affected employees, reporting harassment at work may be too emotional. They may not trust HR to handle it. They may be worried about turmoil if they pursue the complaint.
But a new third-party, A.I.-assisted tool, is trying to make it easier to file a complaint, as well as give the person options for acting on it.
The tool, Spot, is a chatbot that helps people create a contemporaneous record of harassment or discrimination based on their race, age, gender or religion.
The chatbot works to help a user recall the event. The user types in responses to questions from the bot, which in turn uses natural language processing (NLP), an AI technology, to help extract clarifying details about an alleged incident. The NLP analyzes text to understand its meaning and then responds to a human in context. The report is time-stamped and digitally signed. From there, users have options, including filing anonymously via the vendor's email servers with their employer -- the complaint is designed to protect identity -- or attaching their name to the complaint.
"I think we've seen recently in current events instances where a contemporaneous record of what happened would have been a very valuable asset," said Jessica Collier, vice president of product at All Turtles, the firm that funded this system. "One reason that people don't come forward immediately to talk to a human is that they're embarrassed; they're traumatized," she said.
An enterprise edition of the chatbot
All Turtles, which makes Spot available for individual use, recently announced an enterprise edition with a dashboard to track discrimination and harassment complaints. It believes its chatbot is more effective at helping or guiding someone to recount the details of an incident. The alternative is a person-to-person interview, and people are "not very good at sort of sticking to a script of unbiased questioning," Collier said. "We're not good at not asking leading questions," she added.
David LewisCEO, OperationsInc
The system, as straightforward as it seems in reporting harassment at work, may raise issues for enterprise users.
"It's always wise to make contemporaneous notes about what you are experiencing," said Randi Cohen, an employment lawyer in New York. However, giving employees access to a "'Dear diary' is great, but I do not think it comes without complications," she said.
The use will raise record preservation and control issues because of the involvement of a third party, Cohen said. If litigation arises over a harassment complaint, there could be subpoena for data on Spot's servers, she said.
"My concern for employers in utilizing this technology is that it would be an easy way for them to divert their HR responsibilities," Cohen said. Companies might use the service instead of the devoted employee relations person or employment counsel.
Reporting harassment at work with third-party systems
Spot envisions an HR administrator taking responsibility for tracking the Spot dashboard and taking action. It sees the technology, in part, as a vehicle for someone to report an incident without fear of retaliation.
Spot stores report data only if an individual saves a report for later or submits the report to their organization. If individuals want to keep private reports for their records but opt not to save the reports for later or to submit them to their company, Spot deletes that report data when they end their sessions, according to the firm.
If an individual whose firm uses Spot submits a report anonymously, Spot stores it so the organization can always access it. The organization, via Spot, can follow up with anyone who submits a report, even if the report is anonymous.
Investigating anonymous complaints is difficult
David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm whose services include investigating harassment complaints, said the anonymous complaint "puts me as an employer in a bind, because I am really not able to conduct an effective investigation without knowing who is making the complaint."
The only thing an anonymous complaint may be able to help with is put an employer in a position "where I can pay closer attention to the behavior of the person being accused and maybe catch them in the act," Lewis said. If they get two anonymous complaints about the same person, it might bring HR a little closer to finding out what is happening, he said.
The ability to file an anonymous discrimination or harassment complaint is not unheard of.
The U.S. Forest Service, for instance, has a documented problem with harassment. Earlier this year, the Forest Service reported that for one 14-month period, it received about 1,000 reports of harassment and it expected that number to increase by 20% as a result of its new hotline for reporting harassment at work. It disclosed this figure in a business solicitation for consulting help to investigate harassment complaints.
The Forest Service allows anonymous harassment complaints, according to its user manual. Forest Service officials did not respond to email messages seeking additional comment.
The agency's inspector general, who looked at the service's harassment problem, found, in a recent report, that there was "some level of mistrust" with the service's harassment reporting process.
A lack of trust in HR's complaint process
Lewis said the lack of trust with HR in handling harassment complaints can be an issue.
This "lack of trust in many cases is well-earned," Lewis said, "because of the way things have been handled or buried or not handled." But where trust is an issue, why then, he asked, would people trust a third-party technology that their employer is providing?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently estimated that about three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never discuss it with a manager. And fewer still file a formal complaint, it said.
The EEOC cited studies that found, in one case, "that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment face some form of retaliation. Other studies have found that sexual harassment reporting is often followed by organizational indifference or trivialization of the harassment complaint as well as hostility and reprisals against the victim."
Collier said she believes the Spot SaaS tool is making a difficult process easier to deal with. Reporting harassment at work is tough "even when you have a very supportive HR team and a culture that encourages people to come forward," she said.
Recounting an emotional or traumatic incident to another person is difficult, Collier said. "It's easy to feel judged." That's an advantage they see with the chatbot process, she added.