The tools of anonymously reporting harassment in your workplace are limited and ineffective.
The silence around workplace harassment is a widespread problem. One Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report found that, on average, 94% of individuals affected by workplace harassment did not file a formal complaint when warranted. When asked why they did not report their story, employees said they did not think their story would be believed or acted upon.
If you feel uncomfortable telling your story to a human on the other line (as many do: Hotlines have been listed as the least popular method of reporting harassment), one new tech service has a solution free from the bureaucracy of human resources — a chatbot.
Spot is a free app backed by artificial intelligence that applies the same memory science techniques police and psychologists use in their interviews. What makes this cognitive interview more effective than a regular interview is that it is designed to “ask you the right questions to extract the most important details out of emotional events,” Dr. Julia Shaw, a memory researcher who is one of Spot’s co-founders, told Ladders. As soon as you experience inappropriate workplace behavior, you can use Spot to discreetly document and report what happened to you while the memory is still fresh.
How you can chat with a bot about workplace harassment
Through its cognitive interview technique, Shaw explained that Spot will first walk a person through open-ended, “tell me everything you can remember” questions, followed by what are called “probes” that prompt them to go into more detail about the memory “without accidentally leading the person down a certain path, or giving them details that they didn’t recall themselves.”
That’s the advantage of an artificial listener. Unlike some human interviewers, Spot won’t go off script.
“Human beings are likely to come to interviews with biases and preconceived notions,” Shaw told Ladders. “This bot was constructed to stick to the script, always ask the right questions, and be there just to help.”
Once your interview is completed, Spot can create an encrypted PDF version of your story with time stamps that you can use as evidence. You can choose to remain anonymous or not with your story. If you choose to anonymously file your report to your employer, Spot will protect your identity by sending the PDF report through its email server. After you download the report, Spot said it will delete your story from its servers after 30 days. According to its privacy page, Spot said it will “never share your Spot interview, reports, or other private data with anyone outside of Spot unless you explicitly ask us to do so or we are ‘legally obligated’ to.”
A pioneering technology prompts new kinds of questions
Spot is designed to help employees report their story to employers, but if the situation escalates to one that gets your story before a judge, the legal questions get interesting. Will a judge take a statement collected by a bot as seriously as one by a human? Shaw thinks so.
“Both our lawyer and also other lawyers have at this point said that it’s likely that a judge would accept this as evidence,” Shaw said, “though of course, we don’t know, because it’s never been used.”
Shaw said they are looking to use Spot with companies “who are committed to improving their company culture” in the future. One potential drawback with Spot’s current system of reporting is that human resources officials could be getting reports that they cannot verify are coming from employees. For those who don’t know whether or not to take anonymous reports seriously, Shaw argues there is still value for employers seeing anonymous Spot reports.
“Spot reports aren’t intended as definitive proof that something happened, but they should be treated seriously, and companies are actually legally liable quite often if they ignore these reports for not doing something,” Shaw told us. “If small events that are happening, as a company, you should want to hear about them.
“You should want to know that a certain joke was inappropriate … or that a certain behavior is perceived as inappropriate by parts of the company. Those kinds of small things should really be part of the conversation, and should really be encouraged by companies, and we can help companies do that.”