Artificial intelligence software designed to help those experiencing workplace harassment launched in Ontario this week, with plans to expand throughout the entire country by the end of the year.
Botler AI went live Monday with its "Pan-Canadian Triage System," built to provide legal guidance and support for Canadian workers experiencing on-the-job harassment, whether it be from colleagues and superiors, clients and customers, or online. It’s been in development for three years, but has come online during a time of upheaval to the modern workplace, with roughly 60 percent of the Canadian workforce working remotely.
The transition to virtual work has come with its own set of problems—and notably, hasn’t decreased harassment. Employment precarity and public health measures have played a part in discouraging potential victims from pursuing their options.
Botler AI co-founder and CEO Ritika Dutt first came up with the idea after experiencing months-long harassment from a client at work that left her barely able to leave her apartment for almost a year.
“I really retreated into myself. And I would wake up every single morning, filled with dread, covered in cold sweats, thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is my life?’” said Dutt. She points out that while her experience doesn’t exactly fit the stereotypes of workplace sexual harassment—the creepy boss figure, for one—for many public-facing workers it has become the norm. Restaurant servers, for example, have experienced a marked increase in harassment during the pandemic, most of it from customers.
Users are asked a series of simple, trauma-informed questions, such as which province or territory the incident took place in, and Botler will supply them with an explanation of the law in their area and local resources that can provide further legal and emotional support.
The hope is that the full anonymity Botler AI offers—as opposed to disclosing repeatedly to bosses, the police and others, risking retraumatization—will encourage people to learn about their options and potentially take action.
“One of the huge obstacles to helping victims is that they don't want to report,” said Anne-Marie Langan, a lawyer with The Legal Clinic in Perth, Ontario. “Because people will report and then all of a sudden, they're the victim, but they become sort of the perpetrator of the problem because they brought it to light.” According to the Angus Reid Institute, about three-quarters of victims of workplace harassment don’t report it—and Langan says this often extends to their friends and family.
The Legal Clinic is one of over 50 providers in Ontario that have already signed on to partner with Botler.
Langan hopes the project will put their clinic on more peoples’ radars. She has voluntarily taken on an outreach role in addition to her full-time job on the legal team to get the word out about their free services, and is increasingly using LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter on her own time to try and reach people.
“I've been waiting for a couple months now for [Botler] to start up, because we've had very few referrals. Very few people are coming forward. And I'm not alone—every legal clinic is going through the same thing. It's all we talk about at our meetings.” People are still experiencing workplace harassment, but a reluctance to report and “be the troublemaker” is being exacerbated by the job insecurity introduced by the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Canada’s Department of Justice pledged $371,000 over five years to the company, part of the $50-million investment over five years they announced in 2018 to address sexual harassment in the workplace through legal-education services.
The funding is part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government’s attempt to address workplace harassment. Bill C-65, which came into effect on January 1, strengthens the Canada Labour Code by mandating that federally-regulated employers adopt one comprehensive approach to workplace harassment.
Rather than take the onus off of employers to protect their staff, the AI tool will help victims parse out overlapping and confusing employment law, said Jennifer Flores, a lawyer with Pro Bono Ontario, which runs a free hotline on workplace harassment.
“AI is great, but I think, ultimately, with the law, you need to talk to someone,” said Flores. “And programs who can get clients to us so that we're able to provide them with that service are great, to help clients get to that next level of assistance that they need in most cases.”
Jennifer Berdahl, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, has done extensive research on gender and work. “It's really good to have these supplementary tools, because leaving it up to employers to police themselves has not worked very well,” she said. She wonders if full anonymity, however, removes some of the potential power in telling others about an incident—such as the current situation with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, where knowledge of one person’s report encouraged other women to come forward.
“If you can disconnect the victims of harassment from one another, and they are unaware of each other, that's a very powerful way of continuing harassment.”
Dutt hopes this tool will help encourage marginalized women to pursue their options instead of dismissing their trauma—something she says she could have used as a young immigrant and woman of colour navigating the system on her own.
She thinks many people facing similar situations brush it off, saying, “maybe something bad is happening to me, but I just have to suck it up, and I have to deal with it.”
“And what I really want to do, and what I really, really want to impress upon people, is that could not be further from the truth.”
Botler AI is currently available in select areas of Ontario using the request access form on their website.
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