Microaggressions, comments or actions that make members of an underrepresented group feel uncomfortable or excluded, in the workplace range from repeatedly interrupting a coworker in a meeting to questions that undermine a sense of belonging (“Where are you really from?”).
While microaggressions can indicate a larger cultural problem within the workplace, they can be difficult for human resources to track. Sometimes employees refrain from reporting these instances in fear of being labeled difficult or sensitive.
Ignoring these small slights, however, can lead to serious retention challenges, especially for women and people of color.
Now a Techstars Chicago startup believes a bot named Allie could help both employees and human resources teams solve this problem.
Allie, currently available for Slack, is a bot that allows employees to report bias and microaggressions, as well as receive tips on how to deal with similar situations in the future. The reports go to human resources, who then have the data necessary to identify trends in the workplace, and where to focus diversity and inclusion training efforts.
Allie was first created at Lady Problems, a hackathon focused on improving opportunities for female entrepreneurs, inspired by cofounder and CEO Emilie Hsieh’s experience in her previous corporate and tech jobs.
“There was never any massive issue, or any explicit ‘isms’, sexism or whatever,” she said. “It was all death by a thousand paper cuts. It was, ‘Do you mind taking notes?’ or ‘Can you grab the coffee?’, or getting called aggressive.”
“These subtle, slight things that have no outlet, but over time they build up in terms of how much you feel you belong on a team,” Hsieh added.
The Allie bot provides a way for an employee a route to report these issues. When an incident happens, the employee direct messages Allie. Using Slack’s /commands employees can either report an issue or ask for a tip on how to handle a similar situation in the future.
Employees who choose to report issues are asked to choose a category that describes the incident (Interruption, Exclusion, Stereotype or Other), and share further information about what happened. An employee can choose to submit anonymously, and they have the option to tag another employee in the report.
The information is then passed along to human resources, who can use the data to track incidents and trends to inform further diversity and inclusion training.
Employees can also choose to get advice on how to mitigate a similar situation in the future, based on research around workplace culture. If an employee is having issues with being interrupted, for example, the bot might suggest that the employee frames their question to be more direct, per this study on Supreme Court justice interactions.
While Allie is live and installed in three startups, Hsieh noted that their offerings are still a work in progress; they’re developing the product as they better understand companies’ needs. She anticipates they’ll integrate with additional messaging apps, offer resources for employees to better understand topics in diversity and inclusion, and tailor the bot to an individual company’s diversity and inclusion goals.
Essentially, Hsieh sees Allie as an accessible Chief Diversity Officer, who can help scaling companies create inclusive cultures as they grow.
“Diversity is a tough topic,” she said. “It’s a hairy, thorny issue that everyone has an opinion on. It’s very deeply personal, and it even means different things to different people. What we wanted to do is take the knowledge of a Chief Diversity Officer…and make it accessible.”
Image credit: Allie