HR video tech being deployed to fight sexual harassment

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(Bloomberg) -- The scene, filmed inside a Manhattan coffee shop, is a classic of the genre. A male boss, clad in khakis with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder, tells his younger female employee she’s up for a promotion. Then her smile quickly fades.

The woman “looks fantastic in that outfit,” her superior says, suggesting they go back to his hotel room so “you can show me how much you want that manager position.” As the cameras roll, she storms out of the coffee shop on her way to contact human resources.

Our heroine is played by Kaylee Frazier, a 34-year-old Brooklyn actress who found work in a bustling corner of the entertainment industry: anti-harassment training videos. The #MeToo movement has inspired countless women to share their stories of discrimination or assault. In an ironic twist, it’s helping aspiring actresses like Frazier find work and creating a boom in demand for a specialized kind of video programming.

The video starring Frazier was produced by Traliant, which has seen a 150 percent surge in business since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October, setting off a wave of sexual-misconduct cases rattling U.S. boardrooms from Hollywood to Harvard. The company, whose clients include Hilton Hotels and the Momofuku restaurant chain, is on track to generate $3 million in sales this year, up from about $1 million in 2017.

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“We get literally dozens of inbound inquiries a day,” said Andrew Rawson, Traliant’s co-founder and the former global head of compliance learning at Thomson Reuters Corp. “What #MeToo has done is moved something that was important and made it urgent.”

Another video producer, Navex Global, has seen inquiries for its anti-harassment courses increase by an average of 20 percent a month since October. The number of online search requests for TrainUp’s anti-harassment courses jumped to 2,150 in January from 267 in the same month in 2017.

“The growth has been explosive,” TrainUp founder Jeremy Tillman wrote in a blog post.

Familiar Fare Harassment-prevention videos are familiar to anyone who has worked for a company with a human resources department. Their formats vary, but many depict a female employee receiving unwanted attention from a male boss, then ask viewers to answer questions to show they understand the correct way to handle the scenario. Some states, such as California, require companies with at least 50 employees to provide such training.

Companies like Traliant operate like low-budget movie studios, creating their videos using professional actors and scriptwriters and licensing the courses to companies. Traliant charges about $20 per employee per year, with the price dropping for larger customers.

Such training courses have been around for years, but they’ve taken on a new dimension after the scandal involving Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who was accused of luring aspiring actresses into hotel rooms and coercing them into sex. For Vantage Point, a startup that uses virtual reality for its anti-harassment training programs, the scandal came at an opportune time.

“We went from seeing a few clients to having four or five dozen in the pipeline,” said founder Morgan Mercer, who started the company partly because she said she was a victim of sexual violence twice.

‘So Lurid’ To stay relevant, producers need to stay on top of current issues. The Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association, says about 32 percent of its members changed the content and format of their anti-harassment training in the past 12 months.

“The #MeToo movement has really forced organizations to rethink what they’re offering,” said Bettina Deynes, the organization’s chief human resources officer.

The real-life cases “are so lurid now” that producers are scrambling to keep up, said Allen Noren, chief executive officer of Kantola Training Solutions, another producer of anti-harassment videos. As an example, Noren cited the explicit language used by President Donald Trump in the infamous “Access Hollywood” video.

“We’re competing against that to make it more real and relevant,” Noren said.

One of Navex Global’s recent videos involved employees making dirty jokes into a smart speaker similar to Amazon’s Echo.

“Everything we write is pulled from something in the news,” said Ingrid Fredeen, a senior product manager of Navex Global’s in-person training program. “You have to give them contemporary examples. Otherwise it’s not meaningful.”

Bystander Intervention While the anti-sexual harassment video has become a touchstone of American workplace culture, critics say the clips are largely ineffective and that companies require their workers to watch them solely to avoid getting sued. “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool -- it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability,” said a 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As part of Vantage Point’s training course, employees wear VR headsets and receive text messages asking them whether they should report to HR the scene they just witnessed. Virtual reality is more immersive than normal videos, so employees are more likely to recall what they learned, Mercer said.

Some video creators are rewriting their scripts to focus more on “bystander intervention,” or encouraging witnesses of harassment to speak up. It’s a timely issue. So many people in Hollywood were aware of Weinstein’s behavior that it was even joked about at the Oscars.

Frazier, the actress in Brooklyn, moonlights as a cocktail waitress and said she’s hoping to work with Traliant more on its training videos. Her own experiences with sexual harassment have been more subtle than what was portrayed on camera, leaving her unsure of how to respond, she said.

“It’s presented in a way that’s almost as a joke -- friendly, silly comments that are made in passing or meant to be a compliment,” she said. “Do you go along with it or do you have to be a stick in the mud and say ‘I didn’t appreciate that comment?’” --With assistance from Claire Suddath.

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