After being the victim of workplace sexual violence, Morgan Mercer concluded that training aimed at preventing such incidents was ineffective, and decided to take matters into her own hands.
Last year Mercer quit her job to start Vantage Point, a company that seeks to improve workplace sexual harassment training through virtual reality. She believes that the immersive experience provides a safe yet realistic space for employees to practice responses to such incidents, and see how their decisions impact those around them.
“Companies are starting to see that women are fed up, and it’s definitely time for us to be re-evaluating how we’re handling such important topics, because we haven’t taken them seriously and the training programs that we’ve been using haven’t had the effect that we’ve hoped they would have,” says Mercer.
She explains that sexual harassment training isn’t taken seriously because it’s considered a matter of compliance and legal obligation, rather than a matter of workplace safety.
“We implemented training methods about 40 years ago, and we’re still not seeing the impact that we’d hope to have in terms of actual engagement with the material and the ability to apply learning to real life environments and situations,” she says. “Companies haven’t historically taken it too seriously.”
Mercer’s solution is a completely immersive training experience. Taken from the perspective of a bystander (rather than a victim or perpetrator), the virtual training program asks users to choose how they want to approach various scenarios in the workplace, and lets them experience how their decisions play out.
“It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book,” she said. “You start out with a scene and see things start off gradually–it could be quid-pro-quo harassment, it could be pervasive behavior, it could be a micro aggression or a series of micro aggressions towards a female manager–and you’re presented with the opportunity to intervene.”
According to Emily Gregory, the vice president of development and delivery at leadership training provider VitalSmarts, training is most effective when it goes beyond defining what isn’t allowed, and provides alternative actions.
“You cannot simply focus on what not to do and give people a list of rules; you’ve got to give them replacement behaviors,” she says. “You also can’t just tell people what they need to do, you need to give them a chance to practice a discrete skill in fairly realistic conditions, and get feedback from a coach.”
Gregory likens corporate training to practicing golf. She explains that you don’t play 18 holes to practice your swing; you go to a driving range to gradually improve that skill through repetition in a safe but realistic environment.
The opportunities and limitations of VR
“This is where I think there’s an opportunity and a risk for virtual reality,” she said. “Virtual reality has the ability to say, ‘We can create somewhat realistic conditions,’ but in some cases you can only really get that realism by looking into another human being’s eyes and practice saying something.”
While virtual reality offers many advantages to traditional sexual harassment training, the human interaction element remains a potential barrier. According to the CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., sexual harassment training typically comes in two forms: in person training sessions or online training programs.
“For some modern companies, their perspective is that in-person training is best, because people can ask questions and get instant answers, and they can do it in the context of a group,” he said. “Now that we’re a far more global society and people are working from home we’ve seen online growing in popularity, and an extension of that is virtual reality.”
Taylor says virtual reality solves for two of online training’s primary drawbacks; ensuring users are engaged and providing real life context. As a result Taylor says that VR training is a step in the right direction, but cautions that it isn’t the only step companies need to take to create a safer environment for employees.
Where no amount of training will work
“Training can be improved, and I think virtual reality is an enhancement, and I think this work is going to make it more realistic and therefore better,” he says. “But I don’t think the problems we suffer today are a result of undertraining; the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment cases are committed by people who know what they’re doing is wrong.”
Taylor explains that in some instances, no amount of training would have an impact; what really needs to change is a culture that tolerates inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
One of Vantage Point’s early adopters, however, believes that the technology has the potential to change that culture, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is. “I was so impressed with it I ended up investing in the company,” says Josh Resnick, the CEO and co-founder of luxury candy company Sugarfina.
Resnick says that many employees haven’t been given the opportunity to practice their approach to various instances of workplace sexual harassment, and believes the virtual environment lets them do so more effectively than any available alternative.
“Because it’s virtual and because it’s interactive you can tailor it to each individual participant,” he said. “You can go down all these different paths, and if you go down the wrong path you can go back and choose a different answer and actually understand why it was the wrong path and what the right path looks like.”
Resnick adds that the Vantage Point sexual harassment training program will soon be deployed to his head office staff of 80 before rolling out to the rest of the 500 person organization. While the company is too young to provide any hard statistics on the effectiveness of the training Mercer says early reactions to the product suggests there will be widespread adoption.
“We’ve actually received a lot of inbound requests from Fortune 100, Fortune 500, and Fortune 1000 companies across the U.S. and Europe,” she said. “As a company that announced a seed round six months ago and has been in existence for a year we’re seeing an incredible level of adoption and an incredible level of interest, and I think it’s because people are truly searching for new solutions to actually address the problem.”
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