December 4, 2015
Thank you for inviting me to speak before you all today. I'm presenting here today as Co-Founder and Co-Director of Coworker.org, but also as someone who spends most days thinking about how people can use social media and other digital tools to solve problems at work. I'd like to first briefly explain what we do at Coworker.org, and then share some of my observations of how digital technology might play a role in helping curb harassment in the workplace.
Coworker.org is a digital platform for people to advocate for improvements in the workplace. Our technology makes it easy for individuals or groups of workers to join together around issues that matter to them -- from updating a company dress code to expanding paid leave benefits.
We launched our first tool -- a custom petition platform for workers -- in 2013. We started with online petitions for a number of reasons. I learned while serving as Organizing Director at Change.org, that petitions are an accessible, easily understood mechanism for people to advocate for change. The petition process also surfaces powerful stories that are often missing from white papers and news reports documenting broad, systemic problems in the modern workplace. For users creating a petition on Coworker.org, they are guided through the steps of answering what it is they want to change, who has the power to make that change (for example, is it your direct supervisor or the corporate HR director) and why their petition idea should matter to others. The result is often a story from a workers' perspective -- and it's often compelling not just to other co-workers, but to reporters and consumers, as well.
Since launching our petition tool, people have won a number of workplace victories on our platform. I'll quickly share a few. Earlier this year, Starbucks baristas throughout the United States and Canada backed a Coworker.org effort around improving scheduling in their stores. Soon after that, Starbucks announced it would stop scheduling workers for "clopenings" and provide more advance notice on weekly schedules. A few months after that announcement was made, we partnered with the Center for Popular Democracy to survey users and see whether the changes had been made. Hundreds of Starbucks baristas in stores throughout the U.S. reported they were still being scheduled for "clopenings" - which appeared to be news to Starbucks corporate. When the New York Times reported on our survey's findings, Starbucks sent an internal memo to staff on the issue and closed the software loophole that was allowing managers to continue scheduling "clopening" shifts. It seems that "clopening" shifts - at least in so far as Starbucks defines them, which is less than eight hours between a closing and opening shift - has finally ended at the coffee giant.
More recently, a bartender for the southern restaurant chain Tupelo Honey Cafe used Coworker.org to protest what she says were cuts to support staff wages. Within weeks of launching her Coworker.org petition and getting local media coverage, the restaurant rolled back the cuts in at least three locations.
We've found at Coworker.org that workers have great ideas about improving the operations of a business or organization -- for example, a Bath & Body Works employee is petitioning her employer for a little more time each week to arrange floor displays. Another user is campaigning for a recycling option at Starbucks. The internet and social media, in particular, is making it possible for workers to participate in corporate decision-making like never before, and we hope employers will ultimately view this as a positive development.
Coworker.org has been used by several workers to raise concerns about harassment and abuse in the workplace. In one instance, a contract cleaner at Brisbane Airport in Australia launched a Coworker.org petition with the help of the trade union United Voice to draw attention to a manager who was sexually harassing and abusing his employees. "All the women I work with know what this guy is like, and while he has never done anything to me, I was warned about him when I started working at the airport," wrote the petition creator Carolina.
The airport cleaners had been working on student visas, and had been prevented from speaking out sooner out of fear of deportation. By launching an online petition, the cleaners were able to attract the attention of major media outlets in Brisbane and throughout Australia. This public attention ultimately protected these workers from deportation and resulted in the termination of that manager and new standards for airport contractors at Brisbane Airport.
Because of the nature of online campaigns, the petition creator here can remain anonymous. In so many cases of harassment, the victim is forced to physically confront the harasser -- whether that's in an HR hearing or just in an informal conversation. Digital tools like Coworker.org mean that victims don't have to go through the trauma of a face-to-face confrontation in order to call out the harassment.
Another petition involved a McDonald's employee in South Carolina named Jasmine Lopez. Jasmine launched a petition saying she was slapped across the face by her male shift manager in front of coworkers, after asking if she could go home. The next day, Jasmine said her General Manager and District Manager watched a tape of the incident and told her, "He didn't hit you that hard," suggesting Jasmine drop the incident. That's when Jasmine decided to launch a petition on Coworker.org. Hundreds of other McDonald's employees joined Jasmine's campaign and we're told the manager was later terminated. By launching a petition, Jasmine was able to communicate directly with decision-makers at McDonald's corporate, rather than having to rely on her GM and District Manager. The exposure that online petitions afford workers also helps protect them against retaliation.
At Coworker.org, we often promote our users' campaigns on Facebook. Our Facebook page is a treasure trove of worker-to-worker conversations, and our Facebook post about Jasmine's campaign to McDonald's was no exception.
Within hours of posting Jasmine's campaign on Facebook, McDonald's employees started liking and sharing the post and discussing Jasmine's story. Many managers posted comments saying they would never lay hands on an employee, and agreeing with Jasmine that the manager should be fired. I'd like to share just a few of the comments that were posted by employees:
"I am a shift manager and...my GM popped my hand and nothing was done...I documented a lot too and guess what was done -- they transferred me like it was my fault." - Michelle in Norfolk, Virginia
Another McDonald's employee said:
"...Anyone who knows me knows that I am the nicest person but something like this happen[ed] to me...When I reported to Upper Management they let me go because I wanted it on file and [they weren't] going to file the complaint. So it pretty much got swept under the rug at [my] store in Hinesville Ga. Because Georgia is an 'at will state' messy management get to hide behind that up there, so...people up there just deal with it. So I am glad someone is stepping up!" - Miz R'eec in Hinesville, Georgia
I see this from our users several times a week -- many people living and working in so-called "right to work" states believe they have few or zero rights in their workplace. I cannot overstate how widespread and serious this problem appears to be, at least from the perspective of someone who spends every day reading worker complaints and comments online. Public education is sorely needed in this area so that workers in all states understand they have basic protections under the law.
Finally, I think you'll be encouraged to hear this last post, from a McDonald's manager:
"'I'm a supervisor at McDonald's, I would advise you to make a complaint with EEOC and to also file for a warrant. The EEOC will take care of that and all parties involved will be fired."
As you all know, all too often, even when it's reported, harassment can go unchecked and unpunished. In the instance of this McDonald's campaign, an employee was told she wasn't slapped "that hard" by her manager, and no actions were taken. When employees aren't protected from harassment by employers and normal HR procedures fail, sometimes turning to digital tools can give employees recourse..
Social media and platforms like Coworker.org can also help people who've experienced harassment feel less isolated. We've seen this happen on Coworker.org -- when people find and hear from others who've experienced something similar, they often feel less afraid and more determined to address the problem at their own workplace. It's easy to forget how profoundly important it is to hear from our peers something as simple as, "I experienced this too and I'm so glad someone is stepping up!" Social media makes that even more possible, because workers can now interact anonymously and across any distance.
Workers are also using social media to seek out answers to legal questions about the workplace -- including instances of harassment. On Reddit -- a popular and sometimes controversial message board platform -- workers from all over the United States routinely post questions about their legal rights in the subreddit "Legal Advice". A quick search on the Legal Advice subreddit turns up posts like, "My coworker sexually harassed me...and now she's my boss" and a post by a grocery store worker and union member who reported sexual harassment by her male coworker and was given the option to quit or transfer departments. Another hotel worker posted "I am getting bullied, harassed, and physically threatened at work and would like to know my legal [rights]." And it's not just workers -- small business owners are also using Reddit to get answers to questions about their liability and proper ways to handle complaints of harassment and discrimination. The downside of these platforms is that the advice can come from anyone, with or without credentials.
If you type "I'm being harassed" into Google, "by my boss" is the fourth auto-fill that pops up. This speaks to how widespread the problem might be and that there is a need for simple, easily accessible educational materials on this stuff. Most of the search results for these questions are difficult to wade through. The websites either give very basic advice (sometimes even wrong advice) or they give you dozens of links to deep legalese that wouldn't be helpful for most people. Three of the ten U.S. Google search results on the first page aren't even U.S.-based, they're in Canada and the UK, and none of the first page results are EEOC or other government-run websites. Finally, very few search results lead to mobile friendly websites. That's important, because many workers -- low wage workers, in particular -- rely on their mobile phones to access information on the internet.
So, at this point, we've established that many people are searching for information online about harassment in the workplace. Many still are using platforms like Reddit and Facebook to get answers to questions on their legal rights at work, or simply to support one another. Some are even using platforms like Coworker.org to expose harassment and notify upper management of issues taking place at a particular location. And finally, that very few workers understand the law or what to do in the event they witness or directly experience harassment at work. I'd like to close out my remarks today by talking a little bit about how digital tools and storytelling can help change this.
At Coworker.org, we're looking into how to build the digital infrastructure for workers to contextualize their experience against aggregate data on what's happening inside a company, so that they can hold employers accountable. Access to aggregate data would make it easier, for example, for workers (and even employers) to identify patterns of denial or retaliation across their organization when employees report harassment to a manager. Think of a peer-to-peer polling app that workers can use to survey one another -- the data is anonymized but still useful in advocating for change.
Another initiative at Coworker.org is our efforts to educate our users on their rights in the workplace, and what they can do if those rights have been violated. Many of our users, for example, incorrectly believe they cannot talk about their working conditions on social media. Employers, similarly, craft overly broad social media policies without understanding the legal protections of their workers under section 7a of the National Labor Relations Act. Easy-to-understand language and creative materials will help both workers and employers navigate these workplace protections. It will also allow for more people to come forward online with stories and questions about what they're experiencing in the workplace.
We're also looking into ways to make it easier for people to access information on government websites -- filing OSHA complaints or EEOC complaints, for example. My staff and I often struggle to understand the processes involved in filing formal complaints, and if we're having difficulty, I can only imagine what the average worker is experiencing. There are several steps that can be taken to make vital information about our workplace rights more accessible to people. The first is search engine optimization. When someone types "My boss is sexually harassing me" into Google, an easy-to-understand website from a trusted entity should be the first or second search result to come back. A partnership with Google and other search engines could help ensure that people who experience or witness harassment at work get the information they need. Another step that can be taken is simplifying the process for filing a complaint and making all government web assets mobile-friendly, so that workers using their phones for internet access are able to file complaints without multiple clicks and new screen loads. I also wonder if, perhaps, there's a new approach that can be taken to allow workers to anonymously come forward to the EEOC or a trusted third party with a question or concern, without raising something to the level of filing a complaint. That party could notify the employer of a potential incident without revealing anyone's name.
As a final note, I'd like to say that online storytelling can be a powerful way to educate the public on their rights at work. We need to hear the stories of workers who identified harassment and successfully reported it to an employer who took action. We also need to hear the stories of employers who encouraged their workers to report harassment and abuse and dealt with problems swiftly and fairly. At Coworker.org, we talk a lot about building products and features that workers can use to advocate for themselves -- but what we're really doing is making it easier for workers to connect with one another and share information and stories.