Workplace

Sexual harassment training is outdated. VR might be a fix.

VR sexual harassment and discrimination training might be the next frontier in the metaverse.

Army members wearing VR headsets

Some companies have been working to bring harassment prevention training into the present, fusing seminars with virtual reality.

Photo: Moth+Flame

If you’ve taken a sexual harassment training seminar at work recently, chances are you’re learning from materials that are at least a decade old.

Sexual harassment training has remained stuck in the past, with many workplaces still relying on PowerPoints or videos that don’t engage users, fail to promote empathy and haven’t done enough to prevent or reduce workplace harassment on a large scale. An analysis by an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law found that although the delivery formats of harassment training have changed, the nature of the content has remained fundamentally unchanged since the ‘80s and ‘90s. Meanwhile, harassment persists in workplaces, with 59% of women and 27% of men reporting receiving unwanted sexual advances or verbal or physical harassment, according to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center.

More recently, though, some companies have been working to bring harassment prevention training into the present, fusing seminars with the latest tech trend: virtual reality.

An Air Force member uses a VR headset. An Air Force member uses a VR headset for training.Photo: Moth+Flame

“It's one thing to verbalize and to tell somebody what something feels like or what happened,” said Morgan Mercer, founder and CEO of VR training company Vantage Point. “It's a completely different thing for somebody to be in that lived experience, to embody it and to feel the same thing.”

VR can't cross that chasm entirely, but it's a start. Studies tell a similar story: A PwC survey from last year found that VR learners felt 275% more confident in applying learned skills after training, as well as 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content when compared to classroom-based learning.

Mercer founded Vantage Point in 2017, aiming to use VR to address the lack of up-to-date harassment and bias training in workplaces. She said she realized there was a need for better sexual harassment prevention training after talking with friends and hearing that they had all experienced the same things — harassment, discrimination and sexism — in different corporate settings.

Typical video-watching tools, Mercer said, just don’t offer the kind of real training employees need. In a VR headset, she said, “You're actually given the opportunity to practice speaking up, practice intervening, you can tell your colleagues to say something. That's how we're teaching people.”

How it works

In Vantage Point trainings, which are aimed at senior-level leadership, users are “completely transported into a real-world environment” once they put on their VR headsets, Mercer said. The company uses photorealistic characters rather than avatars to create a “sense of immersion” and heighten the “emotional stakes” of the experience.

“The characters within the experience may come up to talk to you, make eye contact with you, sometimes maybe get a little bit too close,” Mercer said. “Much like in the real world, the things that you do influence the outcome you have, and so if you speak up sooner, things get better.”

In traditional prevention training seminars, it can be hard to keep the attention of a group while going through slides or videos. Even as many prevention trainings are conducted using e-learning software, people often quickly click through, retaining little of the information. But applying VR to prevention training demands the attention of the user, better teaching skills such as bystander prevention and how to properly report incidents that happen, Mercer said.

VR prevention training also helps users “get an understanding of how it might be in another person's shoes,” said Jocelyn Tan, co-founder of training company Sisu VR. Sisu VR’s training programs put users in the positions of either "victim," "offender" or "observer," and have them go through simulations of harassment, discrimination and bullying. The training sessions last roughly two hours, breaking up VR experiences into 15-minute periods.

Tan said she had experienced sexual harrassment and discrimination in workplaces before, but when she was slapped by a colleague during a work meeting prior to the pandemic, she said she realized that if something like that can be allowed to happen at work, modern harassment training simply wasn’t sufficient.

The incident fueled the mission of Sisu VR, causing Tan to double down on her work to get the company off the ground. “The most important advantage [of VR training] is being able to practice making empathy-driven decisions as you're undergoing the simulations,” she said.

Code of ethics

But while VR can heighten the emotions of a training situation, it’s dangerous for VR sessions to be thought of as “empathy-enhancing simulations,” said Erick Ramirez, an associate professor at Santa Clara University who worked with Tan on creating a code of ethics for the use of VR and AR. A 30-minute VR training, he said, can’t replace or approximate a lifetime of lived experiences of discrimination.

“I don't think that we can actually enter into someone else's perspective in that way,” said Ramirez. “What it means to be you isn't just what it would look like to put a camera where your head is. How you see the world is really impacted by a lot of things stemming from your prior experience.”

Image: Sisu VR


The code of ethics Ramirez helped write, released in 2021, recommends that VR be used for ethical “nudges,” helping people be more sympathetic, be less bigoted and understand their biases better. However, developers should be wary of “developing nudges that leave users with the false impression that they understand what it’s like to live the life of a different person,” he said.

But in terms of understanding, sympathy and retention of information, VR is an incredibly useful tool, said Kevin Cornish, founder of Moth+Flame, a Brooklyn-based VR company.

“With virtual reality, you can have that conversation, and you're speaking out loud,” Cornish said. “There's a person inside of the VR experience that's making eye contact with you and sharing their emotions with you.”

Beyond the workplace

VR can be used beyond traditional workplace environments. For example, in the military, sexual assault is common, and often goes unreported. Following the release of a report last year that disclosed the Air Force had received more than 1,600 complaints of sexual assault in fiscal year 2020, Moth+Flame partnered with the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command on its sexual assault prevention program, which trains Air Force personnel how to have conversations with victims, provide emotional support and go through proper reporting channels.

Air Force members in training. Air Force members in training.Photo: Moth+Flame

Cornish said the Air Force’s typical training is “mostly driven by PowerPoint” with a bit of roleplay, done over 40 hours in a classroom. But this style of training doesn’t usually stick, he said. “A very common challenge is they do the training, maybe a month or two goes by, then they get their first call and they have that conversation with somebody,” said Cornish. “This is somebody who's in one of the most vulnerable places in their life, and they find themselves completely unprepared to properly handle that conversation.”

Carmen Schott, sexual assault program manager for the Air Mobility Command, said Moth+Flame’s training is more effective at skill building than the traditional methods of sexual assault prevention training because “they're having to actually say the words out loud,” which helps users remember resources and reporting methods more easily. Moth+Flame’s modules also only take 30 minutes. On the first day that Air Mobility Command rolled out its training for the Air Force, 110 people completed it, Schott said.

“They’ve gotten training, they talked about it. We give scenarios and discussions and PowerPoint in small groups, but it's different from being in a real scene and seeing something happen and then getting to act it out in a virtual world,” said Schott. “They'll leave the experience with a sense of, ‘Wow, I can make an impact, and what I do matters.’”

Making the case for VR

Before developing its current offering, Moth+Flame first worked on VR projects with entertainment industry clients. The company later shifted its business to the enterprise and its focus to workplace training, offering VR seminars in topics such as conflict management, intercultural communications and diversity, equity and inclusion. It began working on sexual assault prevention training modules in 2019 and kicked the program off last year.

“We thought this could be really helpful for training child welfare workers, for helping to prevent suicide by training people on having difficult conversations with people at risk and then, most recently, training around ways to stem the sexual assault epidemic,” Cornish said.

Moth+Flame also recently received funding from the Air Force to do a study on the efficacy of its sexual assault prevention training, as well as its suicide prevention training, at the University of Florida, said JC Glick, the company’s chief of staff. His goal is for the program to be eventually expanded throughout the entire Department of Defense.

“It's huge — the ability to be able to say we have an academic study that says what we're doing is worth it,” Glick said. “The Air Force is funding it, they believe in the program.”

VR scenario An example scene from VR training.Image: Moth+Flame

Though Sisu VR started by focusing on sexual harassment training, it has recently expanded its repertoire to offer active shooter prevention training in partnership with VR company MindGlow. Sisu is also working to build out its client base, and currently is in contract discussions with Microsoft, Tan said.

Vantage Point currently offers anti-harassment and diversity, equity and inclusion leadership training in VR, Mercer said, and the company is looking to expand its content with simulations for things like “negotiation skills and intercultural business skills.” Mercer also wants to expand future training to include all employees, rather than just leadership. The company’s client list includes Comcast, Alphabet subsidiary Looker Data Sciences and law firm Latham & Watkins.

The primary challenge for these companies, Tan said, is getting workplaces, especially those whose methods of sexual harassment training remain dated, to widely accept and adopt VR. Growing hype around metaverse technologies has introduced more people to the concept, but there's still a long way to go. And VR itself is not a panacea — sexual harrassment can, and has, occured within the confines of a VR headset.

“Users are in general still unfamiliar with the space, and so that can be challenging, to really push them towards it,” Tan said. “Being able to convince users unfamiliar with VR that, although this is a new innovation, that it is not something to be scared of, is a challenge.”

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