Can legal tech providers play a role in combating workplace harassment?

By Jerome Doraisamy|15 December 2020
combating workplace harassment

While it remains incumbent upon employers to address harassment, there may be scope for tech providers to offer practical assistance to and collaborate with workplaces to stamp out such misconduct.

Technology is “not going to ‘solve’ the legal profession’s ‘harassment’ problem”, Kieran Pender (pictured) and Emma Franklin submit. That said, tech solutions – what they call Trust Tech – could potentially have a “constructive role” in facilitating the reporting of incidents, which they perceive to be a necessary step in addressing misconduct in legal workplaces.

Capacity for change

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Mr Pender and Ms Franklin, of the International Bar Association’s Legal Policy & Research Unit, said that victims of bullying and sexual harassment “overwhelmingly” do not report, and if tech can encourage even just 10 per cent of those targets to speak up, it would be a “significant” step in the road to meaningful change.

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“We are already seeing several technology companies develop and deploy solutions in this space, including one or two based in Australia. I think there is considerable potential for further growth. While existing technologies are not specific to the legal profession, the law does have certain structural peculiarities,” the pair mused.

“It may well be that there is potential for legal tech providers to integrate reporting systems within existing platforms used by the legal profession, or for Trust Tech solutions customised to the legal profession to emerge.”

The comments follow the recent publication of a white paper by the pair, titled Innovation-led cultural change: Can technology effectively address workplace harassment?, which posited that research bears out that there is a “considerable” lack of trust in traditional reporting mechanisms, such as written or verbal complaints, and that tech could play a “promising” role in combating such issues.

Preventative and practical action

There must, Mr Pender and Ms Franklin continued, be greater innovation and collaboration across all facets of this broad issue.

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“At a preventative level, we need better anti-harassment training, and we need more of it. Our Us Too? report found that just one in five legal workplaces deployed anti-harassment training (the number in Australia was slightly higher), and many respondents said they thought the training they did receive was ineffective,” they outlined.

The pair advocated for greater dialogue between tech providers and law firms, law societies and regulators of the legal profession, “to ensure Trust Tech solutions are as impactful as possible”.

“We are already seeing extensive innovation in the field of reg tech, regulatory technology, in collaboration between regulators and tech providers; it does not take a big leap to envisage more effective use of technology in addressing inappropriate behaviour in law, whether within workplaces, at a representative body level or at a regulatory level.”

Moving forward

In the wake of the global pandemic, and the subsequent “new normal” that is emerging whereby workforces will be more scattered, the need for flexible reporting channels and the potential of Trust Tech has been underscored, the pair argued.

“We need to provide a variety of avenues for people to speak up so they can choose the path that they find comfortable. With more and more workers no longer being physically in the office on a full-time basis, some existing reporting methods – informally speaking to a colleague in-person, formally speaking to HR – will be less accessible,” Mr Pender and Ms Franklin noted.

“It is imperative that we mitigate the risk that this further discourages reporting by implementing flexible reporting models with a variety of channels available that can be accessed whether remotely or in-person. I think as we emerge from the pandemic, it is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective for workplaces.”

This all said, they stressed that the legal profession needs to be “clear-eyed” about not only the potential but also the limitations of Trust Tech.

“Technology will be of no assistance if legal workplaces don’t take reports of harassment seriously, or if they retaliate against those who speak up, or if they fail to proportionately sanction perpetrators of harassment,” Mr Pender and Ms Franklin concluded.

“But as part of a holistic approach to preventing and effectively responding to inappropriate behaviour within our profession, Trust Tech can play an important role in contributing to positive change.”

Can legal tech providers play a role in combating workplace harassment?
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