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Your next sexual harassment training could be in virtual reality

Some say the technology is game-changing. Others worry it could trigger survivors and do little to change bad behavior.

An exhibitor demonstrates an Oculus Quest 2 virtual-reality headset at the NFT LA conference in Los Angeles last month. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg News)
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The man looks real. He inches toward a woman in an office kitchen, then opens his phone to show her pictures of a nude beach. Later, he puts his hand on her thigh. She moves his hand, visibly uncomfortable.

With virtual-reality glasses on, you are the lone witness to the struggle.

Such scenes are part of a sexual harassment training provided to The Washington Post by Vantage Point, a virtual-reality company that claims to be ushering in a new era for corporate training. By shifting decades-old PowerPoints and training manuals into real-life scenarios that transport people into the middle of harassment incidents, the company says, it’s creating a new and effective way for employees to learn.

Companies such as Vantage Point and Sisu VR, part of a small cottage industry offering virtual-reality trainings, say these scenarios are a novel offering for employees and freshen up staid corporate trainings. Showing employees what it feels like to be discriminated against makes them more compelled to learn, the companies add. They cite research showing that virtual-reality scenarios spark more empathy and understanding in participants, providing better chances, they argue, at stemming bad behavior in the workplace.

“You can step into the shoes of what it feels like to be a Black man,” said Morgan Mercer, the chief executive of Vantage Point. “We can push users to the point of slight discomfort. We’ve created an experience where they’re engaging, and where they want to do something, and then we can actually teach them what that something is.”

But diversity and inclusion experts are leery. If VR offers a more engaging learning experience, they warn, such trainings may also trigger people who have experienced sexism or racism at work. And if the VR scenarios simply replicate what old training models have done, but in a new way, research suggests their impact could be limited. Meanwhile, the innovation can lure companies into feeling they’ve done enough.

“I worry that it could be a fad,” said Eden King, a professor and harassment training expert at Rice University. “And I worry that organizations may think it’s a cure-all, when I don’t believe that it can be.”

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Over the past 30 years, harassment trainings have become an increasingly common workplace tool, though the method of delivery has evolved. In the 1980s and 1990s, workers were provided with grainy VHS tapes and thick bound manuals; those gave way to PowerPoints and cloud-based trainings in the two decades after.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, researchers, activists and harassment training experts scrutinized the training content. Studies from academics and the federal government said that regardless of the type of training, two weaknesses remained: Workers weren’t learning much, and behavior wasn’t changing.

Meanwhile, virtual-reality technology was advancing. Over the past four years, companies started cropping up to marry the improving technology with an industry that they said needed disrupting. And in some cases, the founders of these virtual-reality companies have very personal journeys to the work — some after experiencing harassment.

Mercer, a biracial daughter of a White Trump-supporting father and a Black liberal mother, started Vantage Point after traveling in Italy and making a derogatory remark about immigrants. Her Ethiopian friend and traveling partner got angry at her, prompting a conversation that made Mercer realize her error and the power of emotional reactions, she said.

Around the same time, she started admiring the advances in virtual-reality technology, most notably when watching a horror movie and screaming because it felt so realistic. “If we can create situations and experiences that are this emotionally compelling for other applications, why aren’t we doing this for training and education?” she said. “That was my ‘aha’ moment.”

Jocelyn Tan, chief executive of Sisu VR, said she started her company after being slapped in a meeting by a male colleague at an engineering firm. Shocked, she started asking colleagues, friends, family and leaders in other companies about what they were doing to stop this from happening to someone else.

“They said: ‘Oh, you know, there’s training in the workplace that teaches you how to behave appropriately. But the problem is the training is so mundane, unengaging, not memorable,’ ” Tan said. “And I decided, let me revolutionize the space.”

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A typical VR training requires users to put on a headset. From there, they enter a world with fictional but realistic characters, and they are presented scenarios to observe or participate in. At various points throughout a training module, the scenario stops and asks participants questions — such as whether what they witnessed was a “microaggression” or “gaslighting” — or provide examples of how to diffuse the situation.

Scenarios can include witnessing a man sexually harassing a woman, seeing a Black man being asked for his ID and racially profiled, or watching a supervisor give an assignment to a male colleague instead of a woman for reasons that don’t seem logical.

Company founders said this combination of immersive feel and periodic instruction has a higher chance of changing people’s behaviors compared with listening to a PowerPoint presentation, observing fake scenarios at the front of a conference room or reading a manual. It has the power to do something bigger, they said.

“If it’s immersive enough, if it’s memorable enough, you will not forget, and it will impact you to the point of affecting you emotionally,” Tan said. “It puts you in another person’s shoes.”

Diversity training steps into the future with virtual reality

But training experts have significant worries about virtual-reality sexual and racial harassment training.

Erick Ramirez, a professor and virtual-reality expert at Santa Clara University, said research has shown traditional forms of sexual harassment training to be highly ineffective. Those trainings do certain things wrong: They focus on providing definitions of harassment; they can often be one-time solutions that a company employs with no follow-ups or broader harassment-prevention strategy; and they can label people as “victims” or “harassers,” which has been shown to shut people off from the training.

And while virtual-reality companies provide a new feel and look to trainings, Ramirez does not believe that such companies are actually doing much to provide a better experience compared with failed corporate training sessions of the past.

“I think the VR right now is just porting over what’s currently done right now in corporate spaces,” he said. “So to that degree, it’s probably going to be as effective as those are.” (He acknowledged, however, that they could be better at eliciting an emotional reaction from participants.)

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Meanwhile, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, chief executive of the diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm ReadySet, said she worries that people who have previously experienced sexual harassment or racism at work will be subjected to lifelike trainings that mimic those experiences.

Offering training with the goal of making people uncomfortable ignores the need to protect people who might be unduly triggered, she said.

“We as marginalized folks are in a lot of ways expected to endure trauma for the education of others,” she said. “And our pain is minimized or glossed over or exploited so that people from dominant groups can ‘learn.’”

Hutchinson added that even if people do learn, there often isn’t much follow through to ensure that a workplace culture becomes more responsive to bad behavior. She added that if an employee is having a hard time empathizing with people who are discriminated against or abused, the benefits of a training, no matter how novel, are limited.

“If you struggle to empathize with people who are undergoing trauma, I think that’s a personal issue,” she said. “That is likely not going to be solved by a VR training.”

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