We all need allies—and nowhere is that more true than in the cut and thrust of the workplace. A workplace ally is an individual who is not a member of an under-represented group but who takes action to support one or many such groups.
It could, for example, be men advocating for the advancement of women, white colleagues standing up for the rights of people of color, able-bodied individuals thinking about the needs of those with disabilities, or heterosexual employees creating a workplace free of homophobia and transphobia against LGBT colleagues.
When individuals in positions of power and influence—not necessarily from a seniority perspective—stand up for the interests of others, everyone stands to benefit. Allies can provide a louder, and sometimes more impactful, voice for issues concerning under-represented groups—helping to increase awareness across a larger audience.
So what does it take to be a good workplace ally? Being an ally is an active process and it’s not something individuals can simply bestow upon themselves—i.e., I’m not transphobic or homophobic or racist, therefore I’m an ally.
To be a true ally means taking on the struggle of an oppressed group as your own, carrying the weight felt by those in a marginalized group, and never putting it down. Allyship means valuing people with different experiences from our own, learning about privileges and natural prejudices, and working to make the workplace more equitable in spite of them.
When diversity and inclusion issues are in the news, there is no shortage of people from all walks of life and across the business spectrum keen to join in and wear a badge, attend a march, or speak out for under-represented groups. But it’s often a different story once the headlines start to fade and it’s back to business as usual. That’s when the hard work starts for business leaders who are serious about having a diverse and inclusive workplace. Allyship is not a short-term, quick-fix solution—you have to work at it constantly.
The 5 Kinds of Ally
Being an ally doesn’t have to be hard—action can be taken at all levels by being straightforward and making an everyday effort that has a huge impact. The following are some of the roles allies can take on to support colleagues from marginalized groups:
The cheerleader: Cheerleaders are visible and vocal supporters of those in under-represented groups, shining the spotlight on individuals in public spaces and forums. Across meetings, conferences, and online spaces, cheerleaders provide a voice that’s heard by large audiences.
The amplifier: Amplifiers ensure that under-represented voices are heard, valued, and respected. The amplifier highlights the contributions of others and uses platforms to communicate the needs of others. In this context, they really are the ones who shout the loudest.
The researcher: The researcher ally is hungry for knowledge about the lived experience of those in a non-dominant group. Their interest is authentic and well-intentioned, they want to listen and learn about the challenges and setbacks faced by certain colleagues.
The intervener: The intervener takes action and dives straight in…appropriately. They call out offensive or problematic behavior, taking opportunities to defend and educate whenever there is a need to do so.
The supporter: A supporter is a trusted confidante for members of a non-dominant group to share their perspectives, fears, joys, and concerns. They create a security blanket of trust and support where individuals feel heard, respected, and safe.
Take Advantage of the Momentum to Implement Longer-Term Solutions
So how can business leaders keep the allyship momentum going beyond the headlines? Marches and badges bring much-needed awareness to non-dominant groups, but it is also important that leaders use the media attention and pressure to engage in longer-term, less glamorous changes. Invest the current interest in racial justice, for example, in making changes to your recruitment or talent processes.
Make Allyship Part of your Culture
It’s also worth looking at ways to make allyship—and, more importantly, practicing allyship —part of your psychological contract with your staff. If everyone is aware that they should be actively practicing allyship to one non-dominant group as part of their commitment to your organization, it can build more sustainable change. Set aside time for practicing allyship and emphasize that it is integral to your culture.
Allow Time for Regular Education and Reflection
Practicing sustained allyship is harder than it looks. It’s not just about changing a logo or retweeting a great quote. It’s about examining how we are each complicit in perpetuating stereotypes, biases, and discrimination, just by existing in the workplace. These challenges are about introspection, reflecting on our own role—and translating that into action. Try to work anti-racism into your daily routine and enable others to do the same. Spend 10 minutes reading a relevant book, for example, and writing a few notes and reflections on how you feel.
Focus on Psychological Safety
An important part of allyship is calling someone out when they do something problematic—the act of letting someone know when they have said or done something that could be seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, or just offensive. Being called out can feel like an attack, but it’s important to role model a calm and measured response. Begin by acknowledging the person and their feelings, and ask how you can reduce any harm caused. Reflect on their feedback, take onboard areas you could adapt or change, and show how you are taking action to reduce any harm caused and learn from your mistake. Over time, colleagues will feel safer calling each other out if it is part of practicing allyship.
These measures should all go a long way toward ensuring allyship becomes part of business as usual in your organization. But it’s also worth considering making allyship part of your employment contract. Ask the question at performance review time: “What have you done to drive allyship in the last year?”
Sometimes mandatory is the only way to make it happen.