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Using Virtual Reality to Make Sexual Harassment Training More Realistic and Effective

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Faced with the challenge of the #MeToo era, many companies have struggled with outdated and ineffective sexual harassment training. New consulting firms are offering a novel solution: sexual harassment training in a virtual reality environment, which early data shows is more realistic and effective than traditional approaches. 

If the last few years have made anything clear regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s that it remains far too pervasive, underreported, ignored, and commonplace.  For every celebrity or public figure who has been implicated in the #MeToo movement, there are countless individual stories of lesser-known perpetrators and their victims. People from all walks of life, across almost every industry and market sector, have been victims of harassment at some point in their careers. From a corporate management and human resources standpoint, prevention remains the primary focus, along with addressing reporting and investigative processes for incidents when they do occur.

Finding Effective Sexual Harassment Training

One of the biggest challenges for HR professionals is finding and implementing effective sexual harassment training. The standard approach for the past several decades has remained largely unchanged – typically a fairly awful and dated training video or a boring PowerPoint deck, possibly accompanied by a guest speaker, outside consultant, and some worksheets or group exercises.

In almost all cases, these training seminars are more effective at providing legal cover for the company or meeting legislative requirements, than actually preventing or reducing the incidence of sexual harassment. Indeed, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concluded that sexual harassment training has failed at prevention, as the focus is primarily on limiting the company’s legal liability.

From an employee standpoint, things aren’t much better. Most employees treat sexual harassment training like any other meeting or workshop and forget the content just as quickly. There are also certain aspects of sexual harassment that simply don’t translate well into a group seminar setting, where personal dynamics are very different than in the daily interactions where sexual harassment is most likely to occur. In recent years, some companies have adopted online, web-based training programs, in order to make the topic more interactive and engaging.

Others have moved away from these methods, back towards in-person training programs. However, most of these programs still fall short of effectuating actual change in the vast majority of cases. Many are quite dated, with a 2017 study from the University of Oregon School of Law finding that most sexual harassment training content dates to the 1980s and 1990s. A lot has changed about social and workplace interactions and attitudes in the intervening three decades.

As anyone who has ever practiced to learn a skill knows, if you don’t practice how you play, then your practice isn’t effective. Current sexual harassment training methods don’t provide the kind of real-world experience or muscle memory that employees need in order to spot, stop, and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s no wonder that these methods, therefore, have failed to decrease the rates of sexual harassment, or expel serial sexual harassers from the corporate ranks.

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Enter Virtual Reality

Like many challenges that businesses face today, some firms are betting that technology can be leveraged to offer better results. Several consulting firms have started offering Virtual Reality-based sexual harassment training programs for companies and organizations. The training is typically conducted on an individual basis, rather than in a group setting, and is designed to simulate real-world workplace interactions, with a fully-immersive VR environment and characters. Several firms are developing their content to run on commercial self-contained headsets, like the Oculus Go or Oculus Quest, which are fairly inexpensive, especially when only 1 or 2 headsets are usually needed per office site. The content is sold like a program, with a license for a set number of users or site, depending on the consulting firm and software package chosen.

Within the training, the scenarios place employees in the role of observer or bystander, rather than the typical victim or harasser roles found in traditional in-person training seminars. This is typically matched with some kind of online or phone-based survey or question set as part of the activity. Employees take the training in turns, on their own, which often takes about an hour or less per employee. When all employees have been engaged through the training, it’s not uncommon to have a follow-up meeting or course focused on the results, and engaging employees in a dialogue about what they experienced, what they found helpful or unhelpful, and how they should respond if they see or experience harassment in the workplace.

Why VR Training is More Effective

VR technology has already shown promise with a wide range of training and topics, offering more effective, more realistic hands-on experiences for employees. From teaching technicians how to dismantle airplane engines to the use of VR to treat PTSD and other mental health conditions, it’s been well-established that immersive Virtual Reality experiences create the same kind of mental pathways and connections as real-world experiences. This kind of experience or simulation-based learning is exactly what experts believe is needed to see the greatest results. It’s already been well-studied in fields such as Medicine and Healthcare, as well as in many business processes and functions, with better results than paper or online-based training, so there is little doubt that it can work with sexual harassment, too.

Solo VR training also eliminates the kind of group dynamics bias that can often come into play in traditional, in-person training seminars. As an anonymous individual user experiencing the VR training, there’s no peer pressure, no personality role to fulfill or appearance to keep up in front of others. A more honest and realistic experience creates better focus, more learning opportunities, and better results.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for using VR for sexual harassment training stems from the nature of the technology itself.  VR is meant to trick your brain into believing the experiences and sensory inputs in the VR world are real. It really puts employees in the role of experiencing the situations and scenarios and allows them to play a positive role – deciding to escalate, step in, report, or otherwise intervene in the behavior they observe. In much the same way as pilots train in flight simulators (and not just behind desks in a classroom), this helps create the muscle memory discussed earlier, to effectively identify sexual harassment and harassing behavior, and learn how to deal with it, diffuse it, stop it, and report it.

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Firms Pioneering VR Sexual Harassment Training

Several firms and groups are currently researching, developing, or actively offering VR sexual harassment training products and courses. Each may take a slightly different approach, but all seek to leverage the value of VR technology to offer HR professionals a new, more effective tool to help stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace. Some of the top players in this field currently include:

  • Vantage Point, one of the earliest leaders in VR sexual harassment training, which offers immersive and interactive decision-making scenario training.
  • Regatta VR, who offers a range of VR training programs for corporations, including sexual harassment, empathy, anti-bullying, customer service, and anti-shooter programs.
  • Known compliance, safety, and HR giant JJ Keller and Associates, working in concert with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, are testing a prototype system for comprehensive VR sexual harassment training, which they expect to release following testing and tweaking to maximize efficacy and results.

As VR technology continues to become more commonplace, accessible, and affordable, it’s likely that many more companies and organizations that operate in the consultant space will explore similar VR sexual harassment training programs.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s no question that sexual harassment remains a problem in the modern workplace. With ample evidence in popular culture as well as in statistical data, it’s clear that neither the online web training nor in-person seminars that have been a staple in recent decades have been effective at reducing or preventing sexual harassment. VR technology-based sexual harassment training presents a new opportunity to put employees into another person’s shoes, to learn how to spot and deal with sexual harassment in an immersive, realistic experiential way.

While still in its infancy, VR holds great potential promise for revolutionizing corporate training in all forms, including anti-sexual harassment training. Ironically, it might be Virtual Reality that finally helps improve actual reality for the millions of would-be victims of sexual harassment in the 2020s and beyond.

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