Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, companies have been looking to innovate and increase the effectiveness of sexual harassment (SH) training for their employees by incorporating new content, such as bystander intervention skills, and new technology such as virtual reality (VR)  that allows trainees to practice bystander skills in a high-fidelity simulation.

In the recent article titled, “Sexual harassment bystander training effectiveness: Experimentally comparing 2D video to virtual reality practice” in the academic journal Technology, Mind and Behavior the Ivey Business School’s Shannon Rawski and her co-authors Joshua Foster (Ivey Business School) and Jeremy Bailenson (Stanford University) sought to determine if VR-based practice following SH training is more effective than traditional 2D video-based practice.

The researchers conducted a lab-controlled experiment with 100 participants utilizing commercially available training materials, including two 2D training videos, a single-user 2D video-based practice scenario (for one randomly assigned experimental condition), and a free smartphone app used in conjunction with a Google Cardboard headset to view a single-user and a 360-degree immersive VR practice scenario (for the other randomly assigned experimental condition).

While the participants in both the traditional 2D and 3D SH bystander practice conditions were equally motivated to learn, and accumulated equal levels of knowledge, the experiment identified a positive effect of VR practice on intentions to engage in non-confrontational and widely applicable bystander interventions (i.e., causing a distraction to interrupt the ongoing harassment, supporting the target after the incident) after training when compared to the 2D video practice condition.

Conversely, those testing the VR condition explored significantly fewer bystander response options during the practice session compared to the 2D training. Those in the VR group may have been avoiding bystander responses that involved conflict by directly confronting the harasser or formally reporting to the manager, or perhaps when immersed in the harassment scene, VR participants may have not perceived the harassment as severe enough to warrant a direct intervention or formal report.

“Participants immersed in VR may have had more fears about the social-psychological-emotional consequences of reporting, providing some evidence that participants were deeply, emotionally engaged in the practice scenario,” explained Rawski.  “Future research should further investigate the perceptual and emotional results of VR practice to determine these potential effects, especially as they may relate to increased cognitive load.”

The VR experiment may have represented a more true-to-life psychophysiological and emotional experience for trainees, which motivated them to prefer less socially risky or more generally applicable interventions, such as causing a distraction or supporting the target after the incident. While future research is required to determine why this is the case, this particular study will help inform VR training designers and implementers of the effects of this training modality compared to 2D video training programs.

“Companies that seek to fully prepare employees to respond to SH in the context of complex social relationships and power hierarchies will benefit from an increase in informal, non-confrontational, and widely applicable intervention techniques resulting from training programs that utilize VR practice scenarios,” said Rawski.

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  • Shannon Rawski
  • Organizational Behaviour
  • Joshua Foster
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