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Apr 7, 2021

Work tools feel like social media but without the moderation

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Project Include found that some tech workers experienced more harassment during the pandemic, particularly women, people of color and transgender and nonbinary workers.

For those of us lucky enough to work remotely this past year, talking with colleagues has felt sort of like being in a chatroom with workplace messaging platforms full of GIFs and emoji. But bringing the culture of the internet to work can also be toxic.

A recent study from Project Include found that some tech workers experienced more harassment on those platforms, particularly women, people of color and transgender and nonbinary workers. I spoke with Caroline Sinders, who studies online harassment and founded Convocation Design + Research. She worked on the report and said the abuse took lots of forms. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Caroline Sinders, who studies online harassment and is the founder of Convocation Design and Research.
Caroline Sinders (Photo courtesy of Sarah Wang)

Caroline Sinders: One person who was interviewed said that they were being messaged by a co-worker. And this person was clearly inebriated and had even mentioned going out for drinks and were extremely abusive to the interviewee. You know, in other cases, people have [reported] seeing racist jokes that were shared or sexist jokes, and they’re seeing them shared inside of these tools.

Meghan McCarty Carino: So it really kind of comes down to content moderation or behavior moderation. And it kind of seems like there’s an onus either on the platforms or on workplaces to do that moderation. And this switch to remote world has left it kind of up in the air. Where is that onus?

Sinders: I mean, I totally agree. There is no real content moderation or moderation [user interface] inside of these platforms. They should at least have some kind of mechanism, even for people in the workplace, to report. So maybe Slack isn’t handling the reports, but [there could be a] way that an admin could. And those tools don’t necessarily exist, and they don’t exist on Zoom either. As a user, you can’t necessarily mute or block someone from the Zoom call. You have to wait for an admin to do that.

McCarty Carino: You’ve been advocating for a block button on Slack since before the pandemic. Blocking, it’s one thing when it’s someone you don’t know on Twitter, but it seems like kind of another thing if it’s someone from accounting you need information from. How different is this, and how could this work?

Sinders: Even if a person reports harassment in their workplace, you still have to wait for things to be done about the harassment. So, if there’s no tool for you to stop the communication between yourself and the harasser, you’re still exposed to that harassment, while the wheels of justice, if you will, are turning. But oftentimes, harassment is not handled well in a workplace. A person should have that right or that ability, if they’re facing harm, to make themselves safe. And the block button is a really great way to do that.

McCarty Carino: When it comes to things that workplaces can do, we’re kind of entering what I think most companies and most workers are looking at, a hybrid workplace. How can that sort of be improved, and how can we use tools in a way that keeps equity between workers who maybe need to stay remote for various reasons, or choose to stay remote, and those that are back in the office?

Sinders: I mean, one of the things that a workplace I did when we had hybrid was to ensure that every single meeting would work for a remote employee. And if it didn’t, that meeting wasn’t allowed to happen. So that meant that every meeting room had to have a screen that was either connected to the internet or could be connected to a laptop. We implemented best practices, for example, that every person would open their laptop and turn on their video. If they didn’t have it turned on, every individual was at least looking at the video interface on their laptop. So what that meant is that two people couldn’t share and couldn’t get in a conversation between the two of them that could make the person on the other end feel left out. So that was a great way to make everyone in the room sort of feel like they were communicating through this device, and then all communicating together. I think that’s a great place where people could start, is really prioritizing the remote worker as opposed to trying to sort of slot the remote worker in to the physical environment.

Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

Slack told us companies are in the best position to protect employees from harassment, but that workers could contact Slack’s help center if an employer doesn’t take action.

New York Times journalist Nellie Bowles also noted an explosion of troll culture as work has moved online. She reports that some companies are using the money they’ve saved in overhead with remote work to hire consultants to help mediate all of the conflicts that have ratcheted up on chat boards and other remote tools.

Caroline Sinders also told me about the need to improve user design to address abusive behaviors in these tools. And that type of work is often done by trust and safety teams, something Molly Wood talked about with investor Sarah Kunst a couple of weeks back on this show. Kunst said companies need diverse teams to imagine all the ways the tech could be used to inflict harm.

And earlier this year, a group of nine of the biggest tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, announced a partnership to develop best practices for trust and safety in how they moderate content. The effort just so happens to come amid intensifying calls in Washington to regulate the tech platforms.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
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Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer