Photographer: JGI/Tom Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images/Blend Images

Harassment Hotlines Don't Work. Will Apps?

Messaging screenshots might be easier than making a phone call.

Last year, the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater and school became the epicenter of a conversation about assault, harassment, and how they're reported when it banned the host of a regular show after he was accused, on Facebook, of raping multiple women.

Not that UCB, which has outposts in both New York and Los Angeles, didn't have its own official channels for reporting misconduct. It did, among them a hotline, counselors available in both locations, and a human resource department. 

But its hotline has never gotten much use. And when people come to see counselors, they're often hesitant to file anything formally, said Marissa Tunis, who heads counseling at the New York location. "They're afraid of retribution," she said.

Starting this month, in an effort to get more people to come forward formally, UCB is offering Callisto, an app for reporting harassment and assault, to its employees, students, and performers on both coasts. "We want to address the concerns when they're brought to us," said Alex Sidtis, its managing director in New York.

It's unclear whether any of the women who said the banned comic had raped them had made an official report; UCB declined to comment on that case. But organizations like it are hoping that victims of misconduct might find apps more natural than hotlines and less intimidating than reporting in person—and as a result be more likely to come forward.

Reporting an incident is the least common response for victims of workplace harassment, according to Patty Wise, a labor and employment lawyer who advises companies' human resource departments on sexual harassment claims. Most often, she said, victims do nothing. Like victims at UCB, they fear retaliation, she said. They may also be unsure what counts as harassment.

The problem is widespread, and it isn't new. A meta-analysis of studies from 2008 found that less than a third of people who said they had been harassed at work ever reported it at all, and only 2 percent to 13 percent filed a formal complaint with HR or an outside entity. Just this year, at Fox News, where a sexual harassment scandal forced out a chief executive and a top host, some women who said they had been harassed said they never even knew the company had a hotline. 

For UCB, Callisto appealed because of a feature intended to allay victims' reluctance to become the first person to accuse somebody. Many victims don't want to report harassment or assault because they believe it may have been a one-time incident, or they're not sure whether what they've experienced is assault. Callisto lets them log it without officially reporting it; then, if someone else reports the same person, they are notified and asked if they want to come forward with their assault.

"It lowers the risk for you, while increasing the moral imperative to take action," said Jess Ladd, the chief executive officer of Project Callisto, which developed the app. "You're not just doing it for yourself." 

Other than UCB, the only institutions using Callisto are colleges. Students can use it to learn about what defines harassment, how their school's reporting process works, and what might come of making an official report. From there, students have three options for reporting: record the incident with a time stamp, make an official report electronically, or report the perpetrator only if someone else also names him. Ladd has no immediate plans to reach out to more companies but thinks "the model could work really well in workplaces."

Stop it

The StopIt app.

Source: Stop It Solutions

Other harassment-reporting apps are also finding their way into workplaces. This spring, the health-care provider Kaiser Permanente started piloting one called StopIt in nine of its offices. Within 48 hours, it received three reports it has since begun investigating. StopIt, which works like a messaging app, lets victims and witnesses anonymously report harassment and include evidence such as screenshots or video and lets administrators respond and ask for details. Unlike many hotlines, it doesn't route claims first through a third party; instead, it gives an employer's HR department access to information as soon as it gets reported, in real time.

At least on an anonymous app such as StopIt, victims don't have to worry that their voice might be identified, reducing the chance they might be retaliated against for speaking up. Messages go straight to HR, and evidence is cataloged for future reference. Since multiple HR employees receive the reports, their handling is less subjective, and there's a smaller chance that a report might dead-end with a single HR worker. "The HR department is accountable to do something; they can't put their heads in the sand," said Todd Schobel, StopIt's founder and CEO. "One person can't put the kibosh on something."

"It is instant," said Schobel. "You send the evidence over, and the investigation begins." Currently, more than 6,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade schools use the app. In schools, students can take screenshots of cyberbullying and make anonymous reports to select administrators who have access to the app. Schobel said that Ihop, Applebee's, four other fast-casual restaurant chains he declined to name, and a fast-food chain have all also expressed interest. (The fast-food industry has high rates of sexual harassment.)

And despite the unpopularity of the hotline, there's clearly an appetite in offices for the kind of anonymity that they and StopIt can offer. Just look at Google, where more than 15,000 employees have reportedly subscribed to an emailed digest of anonymously submitted complaints of harassment and bias.

Anonymity might get more people to report, but apps that promise it still worry Wise, the employment lawyer, just as much as hotlines. She suggests employers offer multiple ways to report inappropriate behavior and train workers in what to do if they witness it. 

"Every employer has a duty to investigate a complaint of harassment," she said. "With anonymous tip lines, there’s a real possibility that, because the person wants to be anonymous, they’re not going to provide enough description so that an employer knows what the situation is or how to address it."

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