Can Technology End Sexual Harassment In the Workplace?


By Natalie Sanders

The founders of Callisto, STOPit and TalkToSpot think it might.  These are three different technology tools created by people passionate about combatting issues of sexual assault and harassment.  Are your clients ready for them?

The Technologies

  • Callisto was developed in response to the outrage over rampant sexual assault on college campuses. Its underlying premise is that 90% of sexual assaults are by people who have done it before.  It gives victims a place to immediately and anonymously report the incident and store the details with a time stamp.  The system holds that information and looks for matches.  When a match is found—meaning another victim reports John Doe did this to me too—the victims can be empowered.  They know they aren’t alone and can be more confident coming forward, and John Doe can get the help or punishment he needs to make sure there isn’t another victim.
  • STOPit started after a fifteen-year-old victim of bullying committed suicide. It was created for youth to have a platform to report inappropriate behavior.  Recognizing the current reliance on and comfort with technology, STOPit’s founder wanted to transform the way inappropriate behavior is reported and prevented.  STOPit has moved far beyond schools and bullying.  It provides anonymous reporting and incident management tools for businesses, governments and insurers.
  • TalkToSpot is a direct response to sexual harassment in the workplace. This technology employs a chatbot to interact with employees through a cognitive interview approach (like the police use when questioning witnesses).   Its founders believe that answering questions from a neutral, inanimate chatbot makes reporting more comfortable.  It takes the emotional reactions of the person listening to the report out of the equation and gives the option of anonymous reporting.

Ready or Not, The Apps Are Coming

In 2016, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) banned a popular host of a regular show after he was accused of raping multiple women.  These allegations did not surface through UCB’s established reporting mechanisms, which included an HR department, a hotline, and counselors.  Rather, the allegations became known through Facebook.  A year later, UCB Theatre was the first non-college campus to use Callisto.

Employers who want to encourage early reporting may follow UCB’s lead and embrace these technologies.  As the UCB example illustrates, allegations are more likely to surface through familiar technology anyway.  People are simply accustomed to the less human, more anonymous interface of apps and social media.  For employees, these technologies make reporting less threatening, and the anonymity option alleviates much of their fear of retaliation.

There are other potential benefits for employers beyond simply encouraging early reporting.  For example, developments in analytics and pattern recognition through these technologies could allow companies to get a read on their corporate culture and identify potentially troubling patterns before things rise to a level that exposes them to legal liability.  Employers could target training and coaching efforts (and dollars) where they are needed most.  Another potential benefit is the digital evidence trail these technologies can provide if litigation does arise.

Of course, there are concerns.  Could an employee or two abuse the anonymity option to sabotage a supervisor they dislike without consequences?   Might the availability of anonymity in these reporting tools prevent employers from addressing situations immediately and directly, allowing a harasser to remain in the workplace longer?

Valid concerns or not, the apps are coming.  These technologies are becoming widely available on college campuses, and the momentum of the #MeToo movement is continuing.  It won’t be long before employees are asking why such reporting tools aren’t available to them in the workplace.   Employment lawyers should become familiar with these technologies and be prepared to help employers determine if they may be a good fit for their workplaces.