Photo caption: Jana Morrin, co-founder and CEO of Speakfully Inc., offers a platform to empower and support people who have experienced workplace harassment and educate institutions on ways to eradicate the problem. (Photo credit: Jana Morrin)
Every year, a couple thousand Blugolds graduate and move away from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus, many of them to that first job in the career of their dreams. It is the outcome they’ve worked hard to prepare for, and they are ready for the challenges.
One aspect of the working world that is difficult to prepare for is harassment, bullying or discrimination in the workplace. Statistics indicate more than half of all employees will witness or experience some sort of discrimination at work.
One 2004 UW-Eau Claire graduate became a part of that statistic. Now, kinesiology graduate Jana Morrin is working to make sure that kind of abuse doesn’t happen to others.
Morrin is co-founder and CEO of Speakfully Inc., a new technology platform designed to offer employees and organizations a safe and secure way to document and address workplace harassment, intimidation or discrimination.
According to a 2017 survey by the American Workplace Bullying Institute, 61% of American workers reported knowledge of or experience with abusive behaviors within their organization. In 2019, a staggering 90% of responding employees and job-seekers on Monster.com reported having been a victim of workplace abuse.
Morrin knows all too well about the devastating impact of workplace abuse, and the low rates of reporting — only 30% of occurrences, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Morrin became one of those who chose not to report her experience, in part because her abuser had often claimed to be close friends with the head of the company’s human resources department.
The months of healing and soul-searching that followed her departure from her position and the East Coast planted the seeds of Speakfully, giving Morrin a way to turn her own painful experience into hope for others. She set out to create the very resource she wished she’d been able to access as a victim of abuse, an aspect of the business plan that attracted co-founder Nandini Easwar to the project.
"I was particularly impressed with the fact that Jana thought of her experience as one that could really help create a positive impact on what is sadly a common occurrence," said Easwar, Morrin's technology partner in the creation of the platform.
Helping others speak up when necessary
Born from Morrin’s own toxic workplace experience, Speakfully provides software that empowers and supports both employees and organizations in navigating the fraught landscapes of workplace harassment, bias or discrimination.
“Frankly, I don’t know whatever happened to him; I chose to look forward in that moment and remove myself,” she says. “But for many, the process of reporting is daunting and can be scary. With Speakfully, I have a chance to offer a product that can help ensure that the isolating aspect of these negative interactions might happen to others less often.”
With tools designed to offer documentation and support resources, as well as guides in a potential reporting process, Speakfully helps to fill that space between what someone is experiencing, how to process that experience and possibly how to pursue action with human resources.
“Sometimes it is really helpful to simply have a secure place to document things, to organize a record of events or interactions,” Morrin says. “Even if no HR action is taken, for whatever reason, it can be deeply validating to simply see it all spelled out in black and white, see the chronology and have that visual that says ‘Yes, these things happened, it is, in fact, a pattern; I’m not crazy.’”
And if a decision to report incidents to HR is the result, there is a well-organized and documented history to present.
A benefit for employees and organizations
Although the idea was originally to create a product that would work for employees experiencing harassment or discrimination, Speakfully also is increasingly offering tools for organizations to track and monitor their own workplace climate in efforts to prevent negative experiences and outcomes. The product version for organizations was expanded to include surveys and other mechanisms to assess the climate and culture of workplaces, and hopefully avoid situations that can become a public relations nightmare, aired on social media.
“With the backdrop of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, the role of social media has clarified for organizations that they should make use of every tool possible, a tool like Speakfully, to create a positive work environment,” Morrin said.
“Any sort of improper workplace situations, especially when they become public, will have a huge negative trickle-down impact, so this kind of system can be useful in avoiding that,” she said. “But it also immediately improves the workplace atmosphere by showing employees that management cares, that they want employees to speak up about issues like these that hurt the whole organization.”
Easwar was sure to account for the multitude of ways different individuals and organizations might prefer to handle these situations and purposefully built the technology to be flexible.
"Through our journey, we have become acutely aware of how everyone chooses a different medium to come forward with improper work experiences," Easwar said. "That led us to build more ways for them to voice their opinions and feedback, all of which are additional data points for organizations to create a culture of openness and trust. It helps organizations know the right kinds of conversations to be had."
Pandemic impact and future growth
As with nearly every aspect of life in 2020, Morrin and her Speakfully team had to make considerable changes to their game plan with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The product we created wasn’t officially ready to roll out until very late in the year in 2019,” she said. “The plan for 2020 was to get ourselves out in front of a lot of people; we were registered for many HR conferences. And like everybody else, we had to pivot.”
While she describes that limbo as unsettling for several months, Morrin said that by later in 2020 organizations were becoming more acclimated to the pandemic situation. They started thinking once again about investing in things like HR tools, and everyone has now become accustomed to virtual pitches and sales negotiations.
As Speakfully continues to establish both its individual and organizational-level user base, Morrin knows that at the speed of change in the technology world, looking ahead to new market needs is important to consider.
“We’ve started thinking about ways to potentially either expand to be a full HRIS system, incorporating all elements like payroll and benefits, or creating a plugin to integrate Speakfully with existing systems; we’re looking at all options and figuring out what will make the most sense,” she said.
A tool like Speakfully, Easwar acknowledges, will not appeal to all organizations, but society is pushing toward new kinds of accountability, and good leaders in businesses will want to follow.
"It can be a very progressive, alternate way of thinking about workplace mistreatment, where you openly ask employees to write down and share their experiences with the right people," she said. "Not all leaders are open to such a shift in thinking and that can be a hurdle sometimes. But nothing has stopped us from thinking outside the box to find ways for solving the problem."
More community connections on the horizon
Another avenue Morrin and Speakfully are planning to investigate are the ways to make more connections with the community, and with UW-Eau Claire.
“We would like to find out more about the potential for hiring Blugolds through an internship program,” she said. “And places like universities are another client base to consider when we look at ways to customize the organizational version of the product.”
One of Morrin’s co-founders in Speakfully, Zach Halmstad, has built steady ties between UW-Eau Claire and Jamf Software and will likely play a key role in establishing ways that Speakfully can forge similar connections as the business continues to grow.
“As more face-to-face meetings and connections begin to happen again, those organic conversations will flow and we will be better able to see how all that might look in the future,” she said.
Lessons to share with Blugolds
When thinking back on her time as a student at UW-Eau Claire, Morrin tends to see a holistic experience that didn’t simply bring her a set of tools for a career, but more importantly, a set of tools for a better life.
“I truly loved my years in college,” Morrin said. “The overall experience of becoming independent, I so remember that feeling. I was learning how to make decisions that would help me build the kind of life I wanted, more so than finding exactly the kind of job I wanted.”
Morrin’s career path is a great reminder of the power inherent in a liberal arts education — a certain degree gives a graduate a starting point, but a broad view of the world and an ongoing desire to learn gives a graduate endless possibilities.
“For us, at Speakfully, with the exception of our software engineers who do need a certain level of expertise, what we look for most are good people,” Morrin said.
“I want to find people who show me that the driving forces in their lives, their vision and purpose for their work, align with Speakfully’s mission. It is not always about a certain degree or work history,” she said.
“Employers look for confident, curious, hard-working people they can teach.”