When diversity and inclusion movements such as Black Lives Matter are in the news, people are quick to join in and show their support – whether by attending marches, wearing a badge or writing blogs. But the hard work really starts when the headlines have faded, particularly when it comes to the workplace.
There is no short-term, quick-fix solution when it comes to practicing allyship at work – you have to work at it every day. It’s a constant balance between acknowledging our racism, sexism and homophobia – and balancing it with taking action for people of color, for women, and for the LGBTQ+ community.
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. There are five main types of ally:
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.
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 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 takes action and dives straight in… appropriately. They call out offensive or problematic behaviour, taking opportunities to defend and educate whenever there is a need to do so.
A supporter is a trusted confidant 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.
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. So how can business leaders keep the allyship momentum going beyond the headlines?
Although events and lanyards bring much-needed awareness to non-dominant groups, you can use the media attention and pressure to engage in longer term, less glamourous changes within your oganization. Invest the current interest in racial justice, for example, in making changes to your recruitment or talent processes. Use it to gain more traction for improved data and reporting in your business. Keep your eye on the long-term goals and seize the opportunity for change.
It’s also worth looking at ways to make allyship – and, more importantly, practising allyship – part of your psychological contract with your staff. If everyone is aware that they should be actively practising 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.
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. This practice is both sustainable and reflective – the perfect combination for effective allyship.
Easier Said Than Done
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. This is easier said than done, especially in a culture where the practice is not the norm or where colleagues feel they may be punished for doing this. Begin to open up a space to receive feedback from colleagues and reflect on how you respond to that feedback.
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 (calling someone out can be scary too) and ask how you can reduce any harm caused. Reflect on their feedback (taking a pause if you need to), take on board areas you could adapt or change, and show how you are taking action in that area to reduce any harm caused and learn from your mistake. Over time, colleagues will feel safer to call each other out if it is part of practising allyship – reducing harm for all colleagues, not just those from non-dominant groups.
The measures outlined above should go a long way towards ensuring allyship becomes part of business as usual in your organization. But it’s also worth considering making allyship part of your employment contract. In other words, every employee is an ally to a group that is not theirs. It will bring about learning, sponsorship, and eventually more representation. Ask the question at performance review time: “What have you done to drive allyship in the past year?” Sometimes mandatory is the only way to make it happen.