How a new technology is fighting workplace discrimination in Germany

After facing workplace discrimination herself, Lara von Petersdorff-Campen co-founded 'Lytt' to make reporting incidents easier and safer.

How a new technology is fighting workplace discrimination in Germany
The idea for Lytt came during the #MeToo movement, when more people felt empowered to report discrimination they faced in the workplace and elsewhere. Photo: Depositphotos/yakubchuk1

More than half of all harassment in German workplaces goes unreported due to fear of repercussions and being disadvantaged against in career progression, according to a report published last year by the Forsa Institut. This 56% includes incidents involving sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying.

These statistics were one of the driving factors behind the launch of Lytt, an app aimed at fighting social injustice in Germany’s workplaces.

After experiencing workplace discrimination herself, co-founder Lara von Petersdorff-Campen, 24, decided to take action.

“Due to a personal incident at work, my co-founder Marvin Homburg and I increasingly looked into the issue of harassment and other conflicts at work more closely,” she said.

“We then investigated how we could support firms by establishing structures so that those affected could get help in every situation without fear of disadvantage.”

SEE ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the German workplace?

Lytt's founders Marvin Homburg and Lara von Petersdorff-Campen. Photos courtesy of Lytt.

And the result of these investigations? Lytt, whose name means “listen” in Norwegian.

The idea behind the technology is that employees are given access to a ‘digital assistant’ that allows them to anonymously address difficult topics and incidents – ranging from unconscious bias to discrimination – that they have experienced in the office.

“Our goal is to support employees to speak up with confidence and help companies make the workplace more healthy, inclusive and productive,” said von Petersdorff-Campen.

FIND A JOB: Browse thousands of English-language jobs in Germany

After reporting an incident to Lytt, the employee is given options and advice on how and if they want to progress the issue, while being in full control of what happens next.

If requested, Lytt can anonymously connect the employee to an internal confidant or an external expert in fields such as psychology or law.

The company or start-up has to be on-boarded by Lytt first and the app rolled out, but any sized company can sign up. The software is free for start-ups with up to 100 employees.

A female driven team

Founded in February 2019, Lytt currently has only five employees, three of whom are women. One of these is Christine Lüders, the former Head of Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency who acts as a Senior Partner and expert in the field.

“I am convinced that we cannot leave it only to men to design the world of tomorrow by building our technology,” said Laura Jentsch, 25, Lytt’s first hire and Head of Product at the company.

“In my experience, women in particular are the ones who are suffering the most in toxic working cultures.

So the idea of a disruptive communication channel that explicitly empowers employees to speak up and be supported was vital,” she said.

A changing culture

Together with her co-founder Marvin, von Petersdorff-Campen decided on the company’s vision while studying together at Münster University.

The time period was very formative for the pair professionally, and also coincided with a lot of changes to Germany’s society as a whole.

The #MeToo movement drew attention to the gaping schisms in inequality in workplaces around the world and exposed the fact that in Germany one in every five employees experienced discrimination, harassment or bullying at work every year.

SEE ALSO: What it's like for internationals working in Germany

In turn, it is more than just the health and well-being of the victims themselves that is negatively affected by workplace harassment.

Often the business itself suffers from a lack of productivity because a lack of transparency and communication can lead to a loss of trust in management and a decrease in motivation to perform well.

In many cases, affected employees would rather leave their company than report what has happened to them or what they have witnessed.

The interface for Lytt, which makes it easy for employees to report workplace discrimination. Photo courtesy of Lytt.

Benefiting both employers and employees

In this light, von Petersdorff-Campen suggested that using an anonymous reporting app like Lytt benefits companies just as much as their employees.

“Yes, it offers a trusting way to raise concerns, but it also has a preventive effect as it shows that misconduct is not tolerated by the executive board and management,” she said.

“By offering an anonymous communication channel, employers send a trust-building signal to their employees urging them to speak up when something is not right,” she added. “This then allows companies to uncover blind spots early on to protect themselves from financial risks and image damage.”

However, with such human and very often emotional subject matters being considered, does a tech-based solution take away the sensitivity of such incidents?

Jentsch believes that the app empowers employees to take control over situations that might be difficult to address in person or amid a hefty amount of red tape.

“I believe that conversational interfaces are the most intuitive and inclusive way of interacting with technology, especially for emotionally loaded topics like ours,” said Jentsch. “The user doesn’t want to feel like they have to fill out a bureaucratic form when reporting something anymore.”

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Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?