Ensuring inclusive language in products and communication


The ServiceNow engineering, documentation, and internationalization teams came together to ensure inclusive language in all ServiceNow products.

The events of 2020 caused ServiceNow, like some other companies, to shine a more intense light on the impact of our language.

We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of a Black engineer for whom the conventional use of "master" and "slave" to represent database relationships would be a trigger, an unnecessary reminder of racially based oppression and injustice. We began to work to replace these and other problematic terms: “Master” and “slave” are now “primary” and “replica.” “Blacklist” is now “denylist,” and “whitelist” is now “allowlist.”

The focus on replacing these four terms with inclusive language isn't restricted to products at ServiceNow. The company works to remove them from all spoken and written communication as well to create a more inclusive and welcoming culture.

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The problematic terms never should have been used in the first place. Once you confront the reality that they’ve been embedded over decades, “you can’t deny it,” says Magaly D., who runs engineering operations in the office of the chief technology officer for ServiceNow.

Magaly’s team and several teams from different parts of the product organization, including engineering, documentation, and internationalization, came together to walk the talk regarding one of ServiceNow’s core values: Embrace diversity, create belonging. The walk may be uphill and difficult, but it’s necessary and urgent to ensure customers and employees feel like they belong with ServiceNow. Belonging cannot happen where exclusive or offensive language exists.

Let’s workflow it

Wallace S., a senior staff technical program manager in the product operations group, was tapped to lead this inclusive language multi-workstream effort. New to ServiceNow, he wasn’t sure what kind of response he’d get when he reached out to folks to introduce the project. One by one, responses came back saying, “Thanks for leading this effort,” “I’m so proud we’re doing this,” and, “We’re in.” Once the terms, scope, timeline, and workstreams were decided, the work began.

ServiceNow software releases have a well-established development and release mechanism behind them. Magaly’s team immediately started code audits to find instances of the terms, which were considered defects to be remediated.

Most of the work was slipstreamed into the existing process as a feature. As instances were found, engineers looked closely at context, found owners, and made the changes. The first phase focused on customer-facing products and documentation. Phase two will focus on finding instances visible to all ServiceNow employees.

For ServiceNow customers wanting to audit problematic terms, Magaly says it’s relatively easy to gather labels, fields, table names, and choice lists into one place and make revisions through the platform.

"We know that words are really powerful. Words can hurt and harm but also be part of the solution. we have so much potential in terms of being inclusive with our language." Toni M., senior director of product content, experience organization, ServiceNow


Inclusive language in tech

Making revisions in the Now Platform means adjacent work, such as documentation, also needs review. Senior Director of Product Content Toni M. merged her personal and professional passions for diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIBs) and language into this work. She’s part of leadership for the Pride at Now Belonging Group and part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory panel at the Society for Technical Communication. Her team at ServiceNow created all of the Quebec release documentation to ensure it matched the product.

Language is often the first impression of a company and its products. Inclusive language “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities,” according to the Linguistic Society of America. Toni warns, “We know that words are really powerful. Words can hurt and harm but also be part of the solution. We have so much potential in terms of being inclusive with our language.”

Doing what’s right

“Offensive language can trigger reactions and discomfort, and that's not right,” says Magaly.

Wallace reflects, “Anyone who would want to be a part of this company would want to do this work, because that’s what our leadership and our core values stand for. I continually see the internal events that are happening in the name of diversity, inclusion, and belonging and the open and frank conversations on things like racial injustice. I've never been at a company that took social issues so seriously.”

Removing problematic terms from the product and from communication between colleagues helps create a more inclusive culture. Toni summarizes, “There's nothing to lose and everything to gain by investing and doing this right.”

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