Speakfully CEO Jana Morrin, left, with her co-founder, Zach Halmstad, in Eau Claire, Wis. (Photo courtesy of Speakfully)

One thing that has become clear from the #MeToo movement: workplace harassment can be more nuanced than we realize. Research indicates that 78% of employees face some sort of unfair behavior or treatment at work, which can include being talked down to, psychologically manipulated, or made physically uncomfortable.

Many of these cases go unreported because employees fear losing their jobs or suffering repercussions from a boss or manager. The abused employees may even question their own experiences: “Is this really that big of a deal? Am I just making this up?” 

Speakfully, a startup company, tackles that gray area. Providing a reporting and conflict-resolution platform, Speakfully empowers workers to document harassment and any experiences that they are feeling uncertain about on the job in a secure and private way. The platform also provides confidential data to HR managers, helping them to be proactive about problems within their organization. From Day One interviewed Speakfully co-founder and CEO Jana Morrin about the creation of the company and why it’s needed now in an era of cultural transformation in the workplace. 

From Day One: What does Speakfully offer?

Morrin: We offer a safe and private space for employees to be able to journal the experiences that they're having within the workplace. And when they're ready, have a safe place to go and submit that to the organization within our platform. At the same time, we offer HR and leadership data and analytics on the trends that are happening within the organization, even prior to anyone submitting anything.

The hope is to be able to allow the organization to be more proactive with the things that are happening within their environment, versus reactive. This will organically build transparency and trust with their employees, who will then feel more safe to come forward sooner. Regardless of the size of the organization, they need to have visibility into these concerns. Speakfully can help do that.

How does the platform work exactly?

Employees go in and write about what they’re experiencing. So it is private until you submit. When you're writing about your experiences, you might not be ready to submit [to HR] yet. You might not even know what it is that you're experiencing. But then we ask a series of questions. And the answers to those questions becomes the data and analytics that the organization can see. And that's the anonymous piece.

What happens when an employee submits something on the platform?

Once they feel safe enough to submit, then it is no longer anonymous for a couple different reasons. One is, we want the organizations to be able to take action and be able to actually make change. It's really hard to do that when you don't know any of the specifics about who or what. So we're trying to provide this platform of data and analytics prior to that submission process in order for the employees to feel more safe and comfortable coming forward sooner. And that’s because the organizations are getting these data and analytics, allowing them to have these conversations. It shows that they are taking an interest in what is happening and trying to actually make a difference.

Why is there a need in the marketplace for something like Speakfully right now? 

With a pandemic going on, it has changed a lot of things. But one thing it hasn't changed is that there has always been a need for the platform itself. Because organizations don't know what they don't know. What used to be an open-door policy for complaints, where you could go into an actual office, doesn’t apply. Right now we're dealing with a more remote situation, where everyone is dispersed.

Since the #MeToo movement, everything has been really magnified as people are coming forward sooner or are coming forward more often than they did before. This has allowed companies to get visibility, vs. not having any intel. In the past, something might come across your desk two years after it happened, and you had no idea anything was going on.

Do you think workplace harassment will change now that many people are working from home?

Now that everyone is remote, it is even more difficult to try to get a pulse on your culture and what's going on within your organization. Nobody can see each other in real life, there's no water-cooler talk, there's no getting a feel for the room anymore because there is no room.

I think that just because people are working remotely doesn't mean that things don't happen. I think about my own experience, and I think about all the emails, all the instant messages, all the texts. I mean, a lot of the things that happened were through different channels like that. Just because we are now behind a screen most of the time doesn’t mean harassment won’t happen. People still need to have tools to navigate that, and be able to try to determine what is going on. There was an open-door policy and now there's no door.

You mention that some of your own experiences in the workplace inspired the creation of Speakfully. Can you share some of that story with us?

Says Morrin: “Throughout this process, some people have actually been like, ‘Well, we don't have a problem.’ And then I say to them, ‘Well, how do you know that?’” (Photo courtesy of Speakfully)

I think what's really important is to talk about my personality first, because a lot of people don't realize that this can happen to anyone, no matter what type of personality you have. I've always been very focused on my career and a go-getter, really wanting to always make a change within whatever organization that I'm in. And I always wanted to help the business grow. And I'm very tell-it-like-it-is. People sometimes think the word “assertive'' is bad, but I do not. I’m just a very blunt type of personality. Because of that, I never thought that I actually would be put in a situation like I ended up finding myself. I didn't think that anyone would do it. I also didn't think that I would allow anyone to do it. And it still happened to me.

I worked for a C-level executive. Little things started happening, and it would start out small and I just didn't really know what it was. And I wasn't entirely sure but I knew something didn’t feel right. At the same time, I was confused. And it just continued to build and build. And over time, all of a sudden, I'm in the middle of it. You kind of look back and you're like, “Whoa, how did I get here? What am I doing?” It wasn't a black-and-white situation. I would call it an emotional rollercoaster. And it really affected my productivity. I got to a point where I just couldn't handle it. And that's not my character. I never leave a job without having another one. I would never in my wildest dreams think about doing that. And I did.

How did this lead to you creating Speakfully?

The co-founder of Speakfully is Zach Halmstad and he is a previous founder of a successful tech company that has since been acquired. He and I started this, and he is a good friend of mine. Before we started this, he knew about what was happening with me and we started having conversations about what we could do to try to help people in situations like this. One of the things that stuck out to him was the way that I wrote about what happened to me. I just threw a bunch of stuff into a Google Doc. I didn't know what I was doing. It was all over the place. I didn't know if I was writing the right thing. And so we started talking about that in particular, and like, “OK, what could have been helpful in that situation?”

What has it been like for you being a female founder in the tech field?

Starting this from the ground up and being female, you know, it's challenging. I mean, startups in general are hard. It's been really eye-opening and a whirlwind. I think about where we were last year at this time, we didn't even have a product yet, didn't have anything in the market. So just seeing where we've gone has been really exciting.

What we're trying to do, and the impact that we're trying to have, is to change the status quo. That is a challenge. People really do want to make a difference within an organization, but people are scared, and rightfully so. I think having a platform like this will really tell you what's going on.

So many cases of workplace harassment go unreported. How is Speakfully looking to change that culture?

What we're trying to do is let these organizations show people that they do care and that they want to have these ongoing conversations with them. Because they don't want these types of people, [the bad actors], in their environment. And they don't know that they're there. Because if they knew, they wouldn't be there. Throughout this process, some people have actually been like, “Well, we don't have a problem.” And then I say to them, “Well, how do you know that?” Clearly they don't know. Of course, everyone wants to have the best culture ever, 100%. Statistics say 78% of employees face some form of unfair behavior or treatment at work. That is a majority of people, which is hard to even fathom.

It’s a scary place, so having more conversations about it as an organization is the best way to get people to come forward sooner, so that you can take action. Opening up these conversations to everyone just makes everybody vulnerable, not just the employee, but the organization too. These aren't comfortable conversations to have. But if you continue to have them, it's going to continue to build that trust with employees.

You’re in Small Town, USA. What has it been like creating a company in Eau Claire, Wis.?

Eau Claire is such a strong community and everyone's so supportive of each other. There's actually a lot of different tech startups here. It's becoming a bigger thing. The downtown area has really started to develop. And so it's really exciting to see and I think having a start here just seems like it makes sense. Zach, the co-founder, is from Eau Claire as well. So I think it was important for him to be able to continue to build something like that. I think that especially now, the times we're in, with the pandemic, I'm even more happy that we did start it here. It's a cozy town, you know?

A few years from now, where do you see Speakfully?

I'm super passionate about what we're doing and what we have. And for good reason. This would help a lot of people. It's meaningful to me and to my entire team. As cliché as it sounds, we want to make a difference. We want to change the way that people operate. And we want the organizations and their employees to have a sense of safety and feel good about their culture, and how it is formed. I think that we can really do that. But it's not gonna come overnight. It’s like an ice block, you know. We can slowly chip away at it. It takes a lot of work and a lot of people to want to make a change.

 

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.