I caught up with Jessica Collier, CEO of Spot, and Ginny Fahs, co-founder of #MovingForward, at Slush. #MovingForward is a non-profit where VCs post their policies on harassment reporting. Spot started out as a chatbot technology to document harassment incidents. We cover what constitutes good anti-harassment workplace practices, changes in the law, and how technology is aiming to address under-reporting in the #MeToo era. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Gené: Jessica how does Spot work?
Jessica: We are a comprehensive solution for preventing and reacting to workplace harassment and discrimination. Our main product is an anonymous reporting tool. We use an anonymous AI bot to help people walk through recounting the incident that happened to them, and then to decide whether to submit to HR or not.
Gené: With Spot any woman can use it to record an incident?
Jessica: We designed Spot for the broad umbrella of harassment and discrimination. So that does not just include sexual harassment, that includes inappropriate behavior or unfair treatment. It’s crucial that people have contemporaneous accounts of incidents. What we do is give people a way to privately, without judgment, without having to sit down and talk to an HR person or your manager (which can be very embarrassing and intimidating) — create as thorough, accurate, and unbiased an account as possible. And we do that using a little bit of AI because we think that removing humans from the parts of this process, where we are the biggest liability, is our greatest chance of solving the problem of under-reporting.
Gené: How do companies engage with your platform?
Jessica: We are open to the public. Anyone could go to talk to Spot and click on report harassment and use our bot to kind of walk through and create a report. We do primarily sell to companies. There is a fundamental shift in what is acceptable in the workplace, and companies are starting to realize that they can’t wait until there’s a big PR disaster or an expensive lawsuit to deal with problems. Statistically speaking, we know that at least 70 percent of incidents of workplace harassment and discrimination, and probably closer to 90 percent go entirely unreported. Every organization has things happening internally that they do not know about. That is starting to feel like an untenable situation to most companies
Gené: How do you protect privacy?
Jessica: We are privacy and security first for both the employees who use us to report, and for the companies who are our customers. We use end-to-end encryption. We’re careful about doing third party security audits. We have a bug bounty program. We are constantly trying to get people to hack us to make sure that we cannot be hacked. We pay them for it. We also don’t store data for any longer than we absolutely have to. We delete chat histories with the bot as soon as the employee is done chatting with the bot. The only relic of their interaction is a private report that they either save for themselves, or the report that they submit to their company. We really go out of our way to make sure that employees understand the process, understand what’s going to happen, and understand what HR will have access to. We’ve also been very careful to craft the platform in a way that employees can report anonymously if they choose to. But HR still has the ability via the bot, which acts as a third party go between, to ask follow up questions even on anonymous reports. We know that due process is important. It is important that companies are able to investigate reports, and get the details required.
Gené: Ginny why did you set up #MovingForward? What is it, and how does it help with workplace inclusion?
Ginny: When individuals experience something that they don’t want to experience in the workplace, whether that’s harassment or discrimination or some other bad behavior, it’s often really unclear what to do. And it’s unclear what to do within organizations where there are policies. But it is even more unclear when there is no policy guiding what should be done. And one very common relationship in the tech industry, where there historically has been no policy about what should be done in the cases of bad behavior, is the relationship between VC investors and entrepreneurs who are fundraising.
And so what my organization #MovingForward does is work with VCs and help them write policies that address what should happen if an entrepreneur has a bad experience pitching their firm. So if an entrepreneur gets harassed, or if an entrepreneur is discriminated against, we have a policy that a VC firm works on and we help them.
Gené: Are we seeing the law change on covering relationships outside of the employer/employee relationship?
Ginny: Venture capital and private equity (historically) are some of the least regulated industries, and this holds true also in employment law. Employment law is between employers and employees. But there are lots of business relationships that aren’t covered by employer, employee relationships. For example, an employer and an independent contractor who isn’t full time at an organization, or an investor and an entrepreneur. Or an investor and an agency they work with. Maybe a VC works with a marketing agency or an event vendor. None of these relationships are covered by employment law. And so the policies that we work on and that VC firms have partnered with us to create and publish, cover all of those business relationships that are part of their day-to-day operations, but aren’t covered by employment law.
Gené: Jessica what are the changes that you’re seeing in the law that cover not only employees, but also the sort of non-employee relationships?
Jessica: We are seeing a pretty emphatic trend towards companies wanting to protect their employees, not only from harassment and discrimination from other people in the company, but from customers if they are retail outlets, or patients if they’re health care providers. We do have people who are using our reporting tool for those instances as well. It’s very similar to the kind of VC/entrepreneur relationship.
But in the US, what we see is that there are laws coming down the pipeline. I always tell people, ‘Buckle up, there’s going to be more of these.’ California and New York are definitely leading the way. So those two states currently, perhaps unsurprisingly, have some of the most stringent harassment prevention laws.
We’ve been trying as a society to do harassment prevention training for the last 40 years. Historically, it doesn’t work particularly well. It tends to lead to things like backlash or people digging into their previously-held beliefs. And I think there’s a real opportunity for people who want to do this differently. For people who want to do harassment training in a more diverse nuanced inclusive way. If we have training that’s designed for the #MeToo era, when we know that kind of harassment and discrimination doesn’t just mean a man touching a woman on the ass in the office. It’s much more nuanced and a much bigger umbrella than that. It’s a really big opportunity for all of us to change.
Gené: For a company like Uber, all drivers need to do anti harassment training.
Jessica: I think this is going to fundamentally change the nature of the gig economy. Contractors are required to go through training. The only time it’s not required (and this is a little bit in the weeds), but if you are an employee who has been hired through a temp agency — your agency must train you. The other thing that I think is really interesting about these laws is that they’re requiring harassment prevention policies. So basically what Ginny’s group is working on is now required by law in California and New York, and those policies must include a way to report.
Ginny: I would add that California and New York have already made big moves, but there are other parts of the US and the world where governments are really paying attention and starting to force new legislation. We’ve been involved with an effort in Massachusetts. They have a draft of the most progressive harassment legislation to date even more progressive than California and New York. Between Massachusetts, New York and California that covers over 60 percent of venture that happens in the US. And actually, in Finland government officials are paying attention to this issue, and already having meetings on the topic too. I know Katja Toropainen and her group Inklusiiv are meeting with parliamentary officials next month to discuss changes in the law here. Governments are starting to pay attention and work with advocacy groups, non-profits, as well as folks in industry to think about more progressive harassment laws.
Gené: What are indicators of strong policies or weak policies for venture firms?
Ginny: We work in 23 countries and we work with 150 VCs. So we’ve seen the cultural forces shaping this topic and also the different legal systems that shaped the topic. And some of this is counterintuitive. So one might think a great policy would say anytime somebody gets harassed, a person who harassed should be fired. Because we don’t want harassment in the workplace. But what we’ve found and what the research shows is that those sorts of policies are called zero tolerance policies. Those policies lead to uneven enforcement. If I really don’t like an employee who happened to harass a founder then I would fire them. But if it’s the top partner at my firm who’s bringing a lot of good deals, I would kind of turn the other way and ignore that. And so a zero tolerance policy is not something we advise. Even though we are working to eliminate eventually harassment or discrimination in the ecosystem.
Another counterintuitive part of of the way we advise policy writing, is we think that consensual relationships needs to be addressed. Because consensual relationships happen in workplaces and outside of workplaces. And there needs to be a system for disclosing that, so that the people in that relationship are protected before, during, and after it happens, both in the early days and and afterwards if a relationship does end. And so many of our top policies that we’ve worked on with VCs have addressed how consensual relationships between investors and entrepreneurs might be addressed.
Gené: I noticed VCs on your platform had internal reporting, but did not have a lot of third party reporting tools?
Ginny: Research shows that the way to increase transparency is to offer as many options as possible for reporting. That often means having multiple people at your firm available to receive complaints. You don’t want the only person available to be the person who possibly harassed you. Offering a number of options internally. We really try to push VCs to work with third parties like Spot because there is a heightened level of safety, both perceived by somebody reporting and also actual safety when an independent party who is not involved in the deal-making or the business negotiations is able to to have an objective perspective and help set processes in motion. One of the things I admire about Spot in particular is that you can choose to report anonymously and not even have the person on the other side. You’re reporting to an AI in many cases that makes people feel really safe to get advice from a program where they can ask questions without fear of judgment, actually, in many cases, it encourages more people to report.
Jessica: Harassment and discrimination in the workplace really frequently feels like this big amorphous impossible problem. A couple of reports have been published in the last five years. One is from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The other was a review of organizational strategies for reducing harassment in the US military, of all places. And what these reports conclude is that there are two things that organizations can do. And if we do them, harassment and discrimination will be dramatically reduced or will disappear. And these are not my words, these are their words. And those two things are very straightforward. The first one is give people choices about who they report to. Often organizations require that you report to managers, and frequently managers are the ones doing the harassing. The second thing is to offer an anonymous reporting tool.
Gené: Are you seeing a huge demand for your product or do you think companies are behind on the law?
Jessica: I’m seeing a spectrum. I’m seeing some very incredibly proactive companies and HR people who want to be ahead of the problem, or who understand that, for example, they may have a hotline in place that gets used once a year. Hotlines are sort of chronically underused tools. The other side of the spectrum is especially with smaller organizations, especially in the tech industry where you’re kind of making do as you go. Very frequently, it’s hard for HR people to stay on top of the changing regulations, because they’re not just responsible for harassment discrimination, they’re responsible for like 18,000 other things that are also very complicated and have legal ramifications. I definitely see Ginny’s organization and mine as playing a pretty important educative and advisory role.
Photo credit: (C) Esa-Pekka Mattila www.kod.kuvat.fi