In a #TimesUp World, Anonymous Apps and Forums Replace HR Departments

More startups offer a way for workers to report office harassment secretly.

February 5, 2018 5:00 am

A consequence of the #MeToo movement is learning that it’s not just your own HR department that doesn’t work. Embedded within many women’s stories of sexual harassment is the inefficacy of the human resources department as a concept. As the New York Times noted, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed in 2016 that the least common response to harassment is to lodge a formal HR complaint. The Times went further, showing that the mission of HR lies at the crux of a conflict of interest: HR must listen to and try to solve employee complaints but also have to mitigate company liability for the sake of management. Forbes had much the same opinion: “We’ve done little for our employees beyond nice-to-have perks like summer Fridays and matching their 401(k). In truth, human resources haven’t really been that human.” When Forbes is saying that you aren’t doing enough for your workers, that you aren’t human enough, you know the problem is serious. While we are finally acknowledging that a new solution to workplace issues as serious as sexual harassment is needed, employees aren’t waiting around for management to solve the problem. They don’t have the luxury of waiting.

Anonymous forum app Blind likes to think of itself as the solution to the general office communication problem, including sexual harassment cases, and it may be. Blind is “on a mission to flatten professional barriers and bring transparency to the workplace.” Though it does not focus on HR specifically, Blind has a vibrant space for such discussion. With their identities hidden, workers are as pessimistic about HR on Blind as they can be: “HR will fire you before they help you.” “HR’s primary responsibility is to protect the company.” “We might as well be fodder for the Soylent factory to those who have the real power.” Apps like Blind have the potential to obviate HR departments entirely. Blind lets employees commiserate, find solutions from across the tech world (to which the app is at this point sadly limited, though it is known that start-ups are especially lax in solving HR problems), and compile their findings.

But again, these functions work within the larger context of Blind’s mission as an anonymous all-purpose forum (one user describes it as “ meets LinkedIn.”). Discussions cover everything from “Crypto” to politics to data analysis the ever popular “Misc.” While anonymity allows women to come forward with their issues about their workplaces, it also makes trolling infinitely easier. Sure, there are plenty of public discussions that cover all sorts of implicit and explicit slights against women, but Blind doesn’t shut out those who, say, believe that any concession to women’s needs adds up to sexism against men. They are free to enter such discussions, and they take advantage of that freedom, which makes unimpeded conversations difficult on the general Blind forums. Anonymity is a double-edged sword.

For example, a post title “#MeToo” from December was meant as a way for women (it was posted in the Women in Tech forum, after all) to commiserate about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexist workplace culture as well as to examine how other companies’ HR departments dealt with those issues. While plenty of women did respond with their experiences, a concerted group of men trolled these comments, making jokes about masturbation or claiming the post was an opportunity for misandry. While some men did talk about how they were harassed in the past, they also claimed that they were the real victims of the #MeToo movement because their cases would never be addressed by HR because of sexism against men and because they were “strong enough” to not make a fuss about their situations. Such comments served to derail the conversation about harassment rather than add to it. Part of the thread devolves into a defense of alt-right darling Jordan Peterson. Though one cannot disallow the possibility that the affected women in the thread found each other privately and commiserated there, Blind clearly isn’t an entirely safe or even effective place to discuss your violation in the open.

Nevertheless, it’s better than nothing. One person commented on a woman’s tale of attempted rape: “Is there an anonymous reporting helpline? Start there.” Another responded, “Yeah, apparently it’s called Blind.”

Within specific company forums on Blind, the data is more varied and less clear. Blind says that the day that Susan Fowler’s whistleblowing Uber memo came out, Blind users from Uber used the app for nearly three hours on average, but the company did not explore the specific threads and comments made about Fowler’s claim or sexism at Uber; who can say what the tenor of those conversations were? The average user spends 41 minutes a day on Blind as of July last year, but, again, Blind won’t say what they’re talking about. They advertise the app as being for “Money Talk,” “Career Talk,” and “Other Talks :),” under which is a picture of a post asking “How do you feel about the Google diversity manifesto,” referencing the memo penned by James Damore that relied on flawed and manipulated science to justify keeping women and minorities out of tech. Blind is agnostic about what goes on within these self-policed spaces.

Perhaps Blind’s product with the most potential in this context is their survey data, though again this is in terms of potential rather than results. They found that, among 3000 users of all genders, 42.8% of respondents were not comfortable going to HR to solve sexual harassment issues. If they divided the data by gender, the results would be even more dramatic; but they didn’t. On top of that, this is the only workplace climate-related poll that Blind has done; another has the title “Elon Musk or Zuckerberg,” to figure out who people trusted more on the subject of AI, and this poll had the same level of statistical rigor applied to it as the sexual harassment one. I would have asked for the raw anonymized data or if there were any other analyses done, but nowhere on the Blind website is there any contact information.

But even if it ends up being useful and the trolling is avoided, even if they did focus their app on more of a social justice angle, the Blind model puts the onus of legwork on the employee rather than the employer, creating more work for someone who has been through so much already. The advantage is that it is already a venue that people are comfortable using (if they’re in tech), and that conversations that would be private without anonymity can be public. Blind has power and potential, but it requires a greater editorial focus to make an industry-wide difference for survivors of sexual harassment.

In the past few months, a host of other ventures have grown out of the need to deal with someone other than company HR, ones that may have been born in the tech world but seek to change the wider one. tEquirable offers a confidential ear and resources to employees who need help, collecting anonymized data for their employer. Bravely offers companies independent HR coaches to find interpersonal resolutions. The yet to be launched AllVoices plans to do much of the same as the other apps as a platform where anyone “can anonymously report instances of harassment, discrimination, or bias directly to their CEO and company board.” (AllVoices also claims a “long list of investors and advisors” including people like Susan Fowler.) These companies offer a worker-centered approach that does some of the legwork for you rather than protect those in power. Though they are clearly more focused that Blind, it remains to be seen if they become as popular. They also have some questions to answer, like how they will get companies to pay more than lip service to their results. Sure, they might point to the fact that company culture and scandals affect the value of the company, but those abstract, on-the-horizon effects don’t excite a C-suite that is loath to change anything for the sake of “political correctness.” Also, if the only reason for a company to harassment claims seriously is financial, then they have bigger problems on their hands. The problem is that these ventures do not yet have the market penetration to make a real change. Their potential will be tried in the near future.

The entertainment industry, though it is at the center of the #MeToo movement, has not found a solution for neglectful HR departments. Of the many lower-level employees at studios and agencies that I have spoken to, none of them found closure and restitution by heading to HR. The closest to a success that I heard was a male employee whose friends and co-workers went to HR instead of him to make a claim about his former boss, and that boss was later fired. Initially, he lied to HR out of fear that, if his boss was fired, he would also lose his job. At his new company, he doesn’t feel comfortable going to HR because it is too chummy with the executives.

The other stories were more dire in their outcomes. Some quit. Some just kept their heads down. Unsurprisingly, they say the same things that the tech people said about HR on Blind: “it’s here to protect the company from us,” “HR’s job is to look after the company and the company’s reputation,” “I needed to be talked into [seeing HR] by my peers.” One respondent summed up the industry atmosphere: “Even with #MeToo and #TimesUp I don’t feel safe or protected. I’m not an actress and the people who I have felt targeted by are not big names/stars. It’s either swept under the rug or I’m fired for causing a disturbance.” From an outsider’s perspective, entertainment industry workers have the best point of leverage to make themselves heard and to make real change in their workplaces, but even here they feel unheard by those who are supposed to take their wellbeing to heart.

So what steps are HR departments planning to take during their supposed battle for relevance? It’s hard to say about them individually, but if well-frequented HR blogs are any indication, mitigating liability seems to be at the front of their minds.

Workology, which has 90,000 visitors a month, has a post from December about “The Culture of Workplace Silence Around Sexual Harassment” accurately examines the abuses of power that lead to the harassed being unable to speak out—splitting the silence into defensive, offensive, futility, and social types—but ultimately the “practical steps that businesses can take to protect their employees and workplace” amount to reiterating the existing policy through training and review, updating what constitutes inappropriate contact to include things like emojis, thinking about adding an anonymous reporting line, and talking to an attorney about employment law before making any reporting changes; in other words, a lot of small ball. There is no talk of trust between HR and employees or reorienting the department towards employees rather than towards management. Foundational reparative work is necessary, not duct tape or a new coat of paint.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.