Could virtual reality end real-world harassment?

On "Inflection Point," we explore a tech answer to lackluster corporate harassment prevention trainings

Published May 2, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)


Women are learning that sharing our stories is helping to shine a spotlight on sexual harassment. Even men who would never consider saying a harassing word or venture a grope, are now asking themselves “can I hug a co-worker anymore?”

“Can I put my arm around someone in a photo?”

“Can I have dinner with a female co-worker . . . alone?”

For the most part, sexual harassment training at work includes the same rote video, awkward role-playing scenarios or yawn-inducing speaker, and is not remotely equipped to end a culture of enabling harassers or dismissing claims. These trainings help companies meet regulatory standards, yes. But are they making an impact that goes beyond corporate lip service? Not so much.

And still, when women stand up for ourselves in the workplace, our harassers are still more likely to receive empathy and even rise in their careers while women are on the receiving end of retribution. How can we finally flip this narrative? And why isn’t workplace training helping to change outcomes when harassment is reported?


What kinds of training tools will create a true change in workplace culture? The kind that helps workers and supervisors comprehend the nuances of what sexual harassment looks like and how the power dynamics of workplace sexual harassment can damage the careers and well beings of those harassed?

Morgan Mercer, CEO of enterprise training platform Vantage Point, believes the answer lies in virtual reality. In the latest episode of "Inflection Point," I spoke with Mercer about why immersive technology may offer the key to helping workers and supervisors comprehend the nuances of what sexual harassment looks like.

“When you look at the applications of virtual reality, it's been used in PTSD training and programs,” Mercer told me. “It's been used in programs for trauma survivors. It's been used in programs for surgical training because what you can do is you really can simulate the external stimuli. So whether it's peer pressure, whether it's the feeling of, you know the emotional ties to the problem. And you can do it in a way that's safe.”

As an adaptive technology, Vantage Point’s VR training goes beyond a simple role playing scenario. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, each interaction or response to a situation changes how the scenarios play out.

“[W]e immerse you in a real life situation. So it's as real as being wherever you are right now,” says Mercer. “We focus on situations where there's a lot of grey area and where there is the build up you know the progressive buildup something that looks fine on day one and isn't fine on day three.”

Morgan walked me through an example of a situation a trainee might experience:

“It is a celebratory party because one of your colleagues is leaving. She's going to accept a C-level role at a different company and you see a new female manager stepping in to take her place. But then you have a male co-worker and he's very suave. You can tell from the get-go that he's very charismatic. But really where does the boundary lie? You know, is he charismatic and suave, or is he a little bit imposing?

Is he a little bit presumptuous a little bit chauvinistic, maybe, and what's a joke? What's the grey area? What's acceptable and what isn't? And when you have that inherent overlap of the personal and the professional mix, it becomes a little bit more difficult.”

The participant gets an opportunity to make a choice.

“We essentially give you the opportunity to either speak up or we give you the opportunity to actually call and report H.R. and practice identifying things so you know as you see the situation unfold,” says Mercer. “What does it look like to you? Can you actually identify when something's appropriate or not appropriate? And if you miss out on the situation, H.R. will actually call you and say ‘hey by the way, you know this is what you're seeing right now and this is how it actually plays out.’”

It’s too soon to report any hard statistics from Vantage Points’ early adopters, but the amount of interest Mercer has gotten from investors and Fortune 100 and 500 companies shows that people are searching for new solutions that truly address workplace harassment.

Hear more about how Morgan Mercer is changing workplace training in the latest episode of "Inflection Point." And when you’re done, come on over to The Inflection Point Society, our Facebook group of everyday activists who seek to make extraordinary change through small, daily actions.

Find more stories of how women rise up on Inflection Point, Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher and NPROne.

By Lauren Schiller

Lauren Schiller is the creator and host of Inflection Point, a podcast and public radio show from KALW and PRX featuring stories of how women rise up. For more rising up stories, follow Lauren on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to the podcast on Android or Apple.

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