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Dawn of the Meta’s Metaverse Signals a New Forum for Harassment

Dawn of the Meta’s Metaverse Signals a New Forum for Harassment

The “Metaverse” is a virtual universe that transcends the boundaries of the physical world. Often associated with virtual reality headsets and “avatars,” the Metaverse allows people to connect in new ways, including augmenting their physical reality space with virtual elements that allow them to try new things and visualize products and services in their homes and virtual workspaces. As the Metaverse becomes an element of the virtual workspace (think testing created products and ideas prior to their release in the “real” world), the potential for collaboration and innovation is nearly limitless. But with all of the advantages the Metaverse will bring to businesses, we must be aware of its potential for misuse, including claims of virtual harassment.

A poignant February 21, 2022 opinion article by Parmy Olson that appeared on bloomberg.com raised a number of important harassment issues that have come to light, as Mark Zuckerberg owned “Meta” has tested and released its version of the Metaverse in recent months. Ms. Olson’s research revealed an MIT article discussing a beta tester who was groped by a stranger in a virtual game on Meta’s network called Horizon Worlds. The second incident Ms. Olson discussed was an account of a female user of Meta’s Venues. The user reported that within 60 seconds of joining she was “verbally and sexually harassed,” and claimed to be “virtually gang-raped.” Ms. Olson discussed Meta’s lack of internal security procedures in comparison to those of Microsoft’s virtual platform, and also made salient points on the need for better personal boundaries within this new and ever-growing medium.

As the Metaverse grows in prominence, issues like those discussed in the Bloomberg.com article will grow in frequency as users begin to use the Metaverse more frequently as a tool to help them do their jobs. Ms. Olson’s article raises issues that are going to be prominent as the Metaverse becomes both a training tool for organizations and a means for employees to interact virtually both at work (whether it be in-office or remotely) and outside the workplace. As the medium grows in use and acceptance, more and more employers are already looking to take advantage of its possibilities for collaboration and education, and are seeking to become early adopters of the technology afforded by the platform for integration into their culture.

Syntrio has written a number of recent articles on the importance of maintaining a respectful work environment and positive organizational culture. We feel that maintaining respect and civility and an emphasis on mindfulness are behavior-building blocks to improving and maintaining a positive workplace culture. Online meeting platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other virtual meeting environments are likely ingrained in the fabric of your organization in the pandemic and post-pandemic era. While it is likely you have taken steps to ensure that your workforce acts respectfully in online media as they would in person, we are embarking on an era wherein elements of the Metaverse is going to permeate every aspect of our lives, much as traditional online meeting spaces such as Teams and Zoom have done in the previous few years. As they do, so comes the potential for workplace harassment issues unlike any we have seen in the past.

The benefits of using the Metaverse at work are many. For one, the increased human connection will provide the opportunity for instant feedback and hands-on demonstration. The idea-sharing potential of this new space also seems limitless. But as this new era dawns, so does the potential for misuse and abuse, as highlighted by the groping and virtual sexual assault issues discussed above. Therefore, it is extremely important that organizations integrate proper use of this valuable tool into their organizational culture, and make certain that users are treating one another civilly and respectfully. Failure to do so could carry catastrophic consequences, as some organizations are already finding out.

Syntrio has developed a number of products aimed at improving all aspects of organizational culture. From workplace respect and civility modules to communication tools designed to empower your workforce to speak up, to mindfulness methods intended to provide your workforce with the emotional intelligence necessary not just to avoid compliance-based incidents, but also to have the tools to be more productive members of society. We encourage you to contact a member of our staff today to see how our products can help you ensure that your work environment is positive and respectful in and out of the Metaverse.

Since 2007, Jonathan has practiced labor and employment law on behalf of management. Jonathan focuses his practice on advising employers on the prevention of harassment and discrimination issues, with an emphasis on providing in-person harassment training programs to companies of all sizes. Jonathan is licensed in California, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and maintains a national advice practice.

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