Office etiquette? There's a bot for that.

Gender bias

At the General Services Administration's 18F, one software bot is gently putting the kibosh on "hey, guys."

In a Jan. 12 blog post, 18F designer and front-end developer Maya Benari explained how her outfit was using Slackbot, an auto-response tool in the Slack messaging platform, to encourage people to avoid subtle sexism.

Every time an 18F Slack user types "hey, guys" (or "guyz") to address a group, the bot will jump in with a suggestion.

"Did you mean gang?" the bot might offer. "Did you mean y'all?"

"You can think of the opposite word to guys (for example: gals or girls) and wonder if a group of men would feel comfortable being referred to as girls," Benari wrote."When someone refers to you using a word that you don't identify with, it's easy to feel excluded from conversation or misidentified."

By using a bot, Benari suggested, 18F can dodge uncomfortable face-to-face confrontations. But some experts say personal interactions might actually be more effective in those situations.

Traditionally, federal office policies -- usually distributed via memo -- have faced "uneven compliance," said Ron Sanders, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton who has served in human capital management positions at the IRS, Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management.

Automated approaches like 18F's could hold compliance-boosting potential, but Sanders warned against a "false sense of 'mission accomplished'" that could come with compliance bots.

"Confront it and talk it out" is the best way to deal with unconscious bias and promote an inclusive workplace, he said. He could not comment directly on 18F's approach given his firm's working relationship with the organization.

Steve Kelman, a management professor at Harvard University and a former federal official who writes for FCW, was even more skeptical. "I appreciate the thought behind this," he said, "but I would much prefer that better use of words or phrases occur voluntarily rather than even from a 'friendly nudge' from a bot."

Kelman said a function that allows employees to opt in to bot alerts might be a better approach. Still, "a nudge from a co-worker -- some gentle version of 'heads up, you know what you said' -- would also be more effective than this intrusion," he added.

Sanders, meanwhile, stressed the importance of managers considering unintended consequences when wading into colloquial gray areas.

Well-intentioned rules can "start organizations down slippery slopes," he said. "There aren't any hard-and-fast rules" when it comes to federal managers and office etiquette policies.

According to Benari, however, the "cultural hack" at 18F has been a success. "This ensures that every person feels comfortable to be themselves at work, and it improves the quality of work our team produces," she wrote.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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