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Fighting workplace harassment is going to take more than a hotline

Two female entrepreneurs are finding new ways to help employees tell their stories

Illustration by Alex Castro

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Say you’re a female employee working for a small tech company. You’re sitting in a meeting with your boss, the CEO. He’s — hypothetically — a 38-year-old white man with $1.2 million in the bank. You have student debt, a sick cat, whatever. Basically, you need this job. But your boss, he won’t stop hitting on you. Slack messages asking you to drinks, photos of the views from his weekend bike rides. Then, during the Wednesday morning meeting, he takes things even further. Puts a hand on your knee, says he wants to get to know you better. 

What do you do?

You could go to HR, try to work things out internally. Maybe your company has a dedicated HR specialist, rather than an overworked recruiter who’s been given HR responsibilities and doubles as the office manager. And what if that doesn’t work? What if there’s nothing HR can do? 

Historically, the options were to quit or stay quiet. But a female entrepreneur in the UK is envisioning another way. Neta Meidav is the founder of Vault, an app that allows employees to document misconduct in real time. The idea came to her while sitting at her kitchen table, watching the Harvey Weinstein story unfold on her TV. It reminded her of an incident that had happened at her first job out of university, when her boss came on to her during a meeting. “I never even thought of reporting it,” she says. “I was terrified that my career would be crushed by a powerful man before it even started.” 

Meidav realized a lot of the reasons she hadn’t spoken up had to do with fear. She’d been worried she wouldn’t be believed — but what if documenting the incident had been easy? She didn’t want to be the first one to report the boss who’d harassed her. But what if she’d known there were others? 

The problem isn’t limited to the tech industry. Reporting harassment in any office is intimidating, particularly when the tools available to employees — like harassment hotlines — are geared more toward compliance than worker safety. 

To really solve the problem, companies need to invest in resources that help build trust. This means dedicated HR teams and tools that make reporting mismanagement easy. If they don’t, employees are more likely to go public — speaking to reporters or, in true 2020 form, blowing the situation up on Twitter. 

On Vault, employees can write up reports about workplace misconduct as they happen, either describing incidents or screenshotting digital interactions. These reports go into a timestamped ledger. Employees can submit them right away or wait until another worker has come forward with a similar claim. Vault doesn’t reveal the identity of employees to one another, just the assurance that someone else has spoken up.

Vault allows employees to document harassment in real time
Vault allows employees to document harassment in real time

Employees also have the option of reporting workplace harassment anonymously. While most companies are hard-pressed to follow up on complaints without knowing a worker’s identity, Vault allows HR teams to chat with employees anonymously on the app, gathering more information without needing to know their name. 

Not every company is willing to invest in a reporting tool like Vault. For those that aren’t, more employees are choosing to go to the media with their stories. But knowing who to speak to can be tricky. 

That’s where Ariella Steinhorn comes in. The founder of Lioness Strategies, Steinhorn is part of a new wave of PR that’s focused on helping employees get the word out about their stories. She thought of the idea after a former boss came onto her on Slack — a situation she realized was likely happening to other women in the workplace. 

Workers can submit claims to Lioness using an encrypted email address. After the firm vets the stories, it matches workers with reporters, using an unofficial network of journalists at national publications. 

Steinhorn works with employment lawyers to review nondisclosure agreements that could make it difficult for employees to go on the record. She comes from a big tech background, having previously worked in communications at Uber, and knows what people are up against when they decide to speak out. Amber Scorah, Lioness’ director of strategy, grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and has written a book about her decision to leave a high-control religion — another helpful background when working with certain large companies. 

Lioness founder Ariella Steinhorn
Lioness founder Ariella Steinhorn

It’s not an accident that both Vault and Lioness were started by women who experienced harassment in the workplace, given how often these incidents tend to occur. Today, when many of the problems roiling the tech industry were started by high-profile men, it seems right that the solutions could come from women.