Is VR More Effective than PC-based Sexual Harassment Awareness Training?

Psychologist/analyst claims virtual, first-person experience viscerally conveys effects of discrimination behavior far better than traditional computer-based training.


Hardly a day went by in the second half of 2017 without news of sexual harassment allegations aimed at politicians, actors, entertainment moguls, business executives and men in other high positions.

The constant stream of these news stories has brought new awareness of the problem to the public. Women are now coming forward with information they were afraid to report to management previously. Enterprises in many sectors are now toughening their hiring and human resources policies; some are looking for ways to implement sexual harassment awareness training that could ultimately save them millions of dollars in court costs and employee turnover.

Despite the high visibility of this trend, many organizations are overlooking something that could be a huge help: the use of virtual reality systems to help them implement sexual harassment awareness training.  At least one industry observer believes that the use of such a system ultimately not only could result in improved company morale and better public perception, but safety from legal entanglement costs noted above.

Convention Training Not Aimed at the Right Target

Psychologist and industry analyst Todd Maddox of Amalgam Insights told eWEEK that the use of virtual reality in workplace awareness training provides a better solution than conventional computer-based training, which he calls ineffective and “less effective for learning soft skills such as appropriate interpersonal interactions and real-time communication, or for training true empathy for another’s situation.”

“Basically, what I’ve been studying for 30 years are the questions: ‘How do people learn? How do we change behavior?’ and in particular, the brain basis of behavior,” Maddox told eWEEK.  “I’ve spent a lot of time identifying the procedures that optimize certain kinds of learning.”

The brain contains cognitive skills (doing mathematics, writing code, learning grammar, for example) and behavioral skills (learning to ride a bicycle, understanding speech, learning how to behave appropriately based on the behavior of others), Maddox said. “The behavioral side is where the sexual harassment comes in,” Maddox said.

However, it occurred to Maddox a while ago that almost everything companies are doing in terms of this type of training was targeted at the cognitive skill system.

“So targeting at a system that teaches you how to program a computer is not the system that teaches you how to respond appropriately when somebody says, ‘I don’t appreciate that unwarranted advance,’ or, more accurately, they don’t say it verbally but say it non-verbally,” Maddox said.

VR Technology Offers Visceral Experience

Maddox contends that current awareness training methods are not very effective because “they are targeting a part of the brain they should not be targeting to accurately change behavior.”

That’s where new technology comes in.

“I totally see why computer-based HR training is used; it’s one piece of software you can use from hiring somebody all the way until they retire; oh, and then it’s ‘Let’s throw the learning modules in there,’” Maddox said. “I get why they’re there. But for something this important—behavior change, treating people with respect, embracing diversity—all of these things that are behavorial are just not treated very effectively.”

Maddox said VR-based awareness training delivers a far more visceral, personal experience.

“There is no better way for a middle-aged, Caucasian male to ‘feel’ the prejudice or sexual harassment that a young, female African-American might experience or to ‘feel’ the discrimination that many members of the LGBT community feel, than to put that man in a first-person VR environment where they are that other individual,” Maddox said.

Harassment Issues Can Be Very Costly

Sexual harassment claims can be costly to a company, not only in reputation but to its bottom line as well:

  • A former physician assistant in California was awarded more than $82 million in 2012 against the hospital where she worked.
  • Fox News paid $20 million last year to settle a lawsuit filed by former news anchor Gretchen Carlson against the company’s former CEO, the late Roger Ailes.
  • The NBA’s New York Knicks settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former executive for $11.5 million in 2007.

In 2017, the names and cases piled up: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, Al Franken and dozens of others. This may only be the beginning of an even wider trend.

Learning Solutions magazine recently reported that researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interactions Lab found that “immersive experiences have a far more powerful—and lasting—impact on attitudes and behavior than other media experiences, whether those involve reading text, watching ordinary video, or taking part in interactive exercises or simulations.” 

The Stanford lab currently is engaged in a VR-based project that addresses how people react to various forms of racism through what it calls a “virtual shoes” experience. 

Nothing Like 'Walking a Mile in Someone's Shoes'

Maddox agreed, noting that VR-based harassment awareness training can ultimately better reduce the risk of an unhealthy workplace environment. “There is nothing like walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes,” he said.

Several companies, Maddox said, have already begun work on VR-based tools that will help other firms implement this advanced form of training. These include Vantage Point and Virtually Better.

“Traditional computer based training should not be discarded,” Maddox wrote in his blog, “but it focuses more on a sterile approach to knowledge.  Combined with the VR experience, workers will be able to feel it for themselves.  That will make the learning more complete, and will ultimately pay dividends not only for the companies that implement it, but for society in general.”

Maddox said that there is are limits as to what VR or any other sexual harassment training can accomplish.

"There are always going to be some cases where the individual is fully aware of his behavior and just doesn’t care. In such cases, no training, whether computer-based or VR, will have any effect," he said.

Amalgam Insights is a consulting and strategy firm focused on Technology Consumption Management. The Boston-based firm provides marketing and strategic support to enterprises, vendors and institutional investors for conducting due diligence in this field.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...