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Can These Apps Help You When Your HR Department Fails?

Several apps offer help for employee issues ranging from sexual harassment to wage theft to getting a raise, but they have limitations.

Can These Apps Help You When Your HR Department Fails?
[Photo: diego_cervo/iStock]

No matter what the issue or challenge, there seems to be an app-based attempt at a solution. And workplace issues are no exception. Now, employees with issues ranging from sexual harassment and difficult coworkers to wage theft and labor regulation violations have several apps to which they can turn for help.

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Empower Work has been in beta since August 2017 to provide text- or web chat-based support for U.S. employees in tough work situations that may include ethical dilemmas and microaggressions to fear of losing their jobs. The nonprofit company’s app connects workers anonymously with trained peer counselors who attempt to help the employee feel heard and supported. If needed, the counselor will provide resources and organizations that can provide further assistance and information, depending on the issue.

Founder Jaime-Alexis Fowler says that her team hears from people who are going through reorganizations or are worried about being fired, as well as from people who are grappling with how to negotiate their salary or plan their next move. And others have issues that they need help sorting out.

“We also see a fair number of users reaching out with these gray-area moments. That could be an inappropriate interaction with a colleague, and maybe they don’t know how to come up with the right language for them for what that was. They want to sort of talk through, ‘Was that experience normal, or not normal?'” she says.

Connecting Workers To Resources

Empower Work’s counselors receive roughly 10 hours of training and are coached in how to tell the difference between issues that are unfair and those that are unlawful. If something comes close to skirting the law, the team member is supposed to give the app user information about other nonprofits, as well as state and local agencies. They are not there to give advice, but to help the employee come to his or her own conclusions or decisions and also act as a conduit to appropriate resources, Fowler says.

[Photo: courtesy of STOPit]
STOPIt takes a different approach to workplace issues, partnering with organizations to give their employees a way to report workplace issues anonymously. As reported in an earlier Fast Company piece, “Employees are able to report incidents such as harassment, intimidation, bullying, discrimination, and workers’ comp fraud anonymously. That includes attaching screen shots, photo, or video evidence. ‘We collect absolutely no information from the user or their device,’ STOPIt CEO Todd Schobel underscores. ‘At any point in the investigation, ‘upstanders’ [the person reporting the incident, often a bystander] have the ability to self-identify if they wish,'” the piece says.

A number of other worker-assistance apps target different issues. WorkIt helps hourly-wage workers get answers about their rights and appropriate workplace policies from peer advisers. HourVoice helps hourly workers track the time they worked to ensure they’re being paid appropriately, and lets them rate their employers and get access to information about their rights. Jornaler@ helps day laborers report and prevent wage theft.

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Understanding The Limitations

And while these are all admirable initiatives, they’re not without a few cautions, says Nannina Angioni, a labor and employment attorney and partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian LLP.

“These apps, like most technology, have pros and cons. The main pro is that they offer immediate information in an easy-to-locate format. Mission also accomplished with a few clicks on Google, but the app makes employees feel empowered as they have access to information right at their fingertips,” she says.

[Photo: courtesy of WorkIt]
However, they’re often a poor surrogate for one-on-one conversation, she adds. An app won’t know company policies or resources that may be available to the employee. In addition, the information available through the technology may not be accurate, as employment law and regulations may change and vary significantly from state to state or even within cities or other municipalities, Angioni says. She recommends verifying information about worker rights, regulations, or other areas of employment law and regulations with an attorney or employment law-related nonprofit.

For example, New York City and California have specific provisions for paid sick leave. The app’s effectiveness largely hinges on the accuracy of the data on which its technology and workers rely. And it’s tough to say how effective peer counselors can be in serious situations like sexual or other harassment or wage theft. In such cases, the employee’s best course of action may be to approach a human resources representative or seek legal counsel, depending on the matter.

Providing A First Step

Employment attorney Renee Jackson, an Empower Work board member, counters that much of the value of apps like the one on which she works lie in helping employees feel supported and find the resources they need. As issues like sexual harassment dominate headlines, employees may not know where to start if they’re experiencing an issue.

“If it’s anything close to being a legal issue, we stay away from it,” she says. The peer counselors are really there to offer resources and listen. Users are often in the early stages of their career and unsure of how to navigate tricky or challenging workplace situations, or they may not have large professional networks on which to rely. Having a sounding board and access to resources can make all the difference, she says.

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“I think given what’s going on the U.S. and world today, it’s coming up at an important moment in time. And to me, the more apps out there, the better—for folks to feel like they can reach out and talk to someone is great. I’m hoping this takes off, and we see a spike in users so that we can help as many people as possible,” she says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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