Everyone deserves to feel welcome, supported, and valued at work. Unfortunately, that can be challenging when you’re the only person in the office who looks a certain way, believes in a certain thing, or identifies as a certain gender. Building a company culture that celebrates all employees starts with a gesture as simple as reaching out; by connecting with people who look or are different from you, you can learn about their struggles and help make your workplace environment fairer and welcoming. That form of outreach, effort, and empowerment is called allyship.
Here’s a deeper look at what allyship is, what it looks like in the modern workplace, and the steps you can take to become an ally in the workplace:
What is allyship?
Allyship is a lifelong process of non-marginalized people developing relationships and building empathy with marginalized groups to better understand their challenges, issues, and struggles. Allies are people with privilege who try to use their influence to magnify the voices of underrepresented or marginalized groups and help bring their battles to the forefront of a larger discussion.
In the workplace, this could be a colleague who advocates for product features that empower disabled customers to be included in the product roadmap or a white manager who helps his female, black coworker get a promotion. Great workplace allies can create a company culture where every employee feels supported and heard.
How can you practice effective allyship in the workplace?
We sat down with Malcom Glenn, a writer, speaker, and public policy specialist and the current Director of Public Affairs at Better.com, to ask his opinion on how to be an effective ally in the workplace. According to Glenn, there are two types of allyship: effective allyship and performative allyship.
What is the difference between these two forms of allyship in the workplace? The answer is simple, according to Glenn: effective allies don’t just talk about change, they take action and initiative to lead the change they want to see. Performative allies are allies only in name. Their “support” of a marginalized group is often just when it’s convenient for them and can actually be harmful to a group. “It is easy to engage in slacktivism,” said Glenn. “Posting a Blackout Tuesday #BLM picture on Instagram doesn’t actually do anything and it doesn’t cost you anything. The real way in which you show yourself as a true ally is to put some skin in the game.”
What does having skin in the game look like in the modern workplace?
“You have to be willing to lose something—it doesn’t have to be losing your life, losing your house, or losing your job—but being willing to risk something”Malcom Glenn
Risking something could be sticking your neck out on someone else’s behalf, disagreeing with a superior, or putting your professional reputation on the line to stand up for what you believe in.
7 characteristics of a great workplace ally
When it comes to being an effective workplace ally, there are a few key factors to keep in mind. Here are seven qualities of a great workplace ally to guide your own allyship journey:
Advocate for others
A great ally is conscious of their privilege or influence and uses it to lift up other’s voices. This can take many forms in the workplace like recommending a colleague for an internal job opening or stretch project. A manager, for example, can help their direct report grow their career within a company by helping them gain experience and learn new skills, as well as by being their voice to senior leadership.
Speak up against injustice
Allies don’t just talk the talk, they take action to make the workplace and the world a better place. Whether they overhear a microaggression or notice a colleague using the wrong pronouns to refer to someone, they will speak up to address injustice and ensure that type of behavior, even if unintentional, is not tolerated in the workplace. This could be through one-off conversations with peers or take the form of challenging larger organizational policies or leadership initiatives. Workplace allies aren’t afraid to speak up, even if it makes them uncomfortable or means threatening the status quo.
Give credit where credit is due
Employees who don’t feel recognized are twice as likely to quit in a year. Be sure you regularly acknowledge and thank your employees for their hard work. This can be as simple as saying, “That was a great idea” in a team meeting or thanking an employee for their help on a project. Lift your employees up for good work and make sure other members of the team and senior leaders know about their performance. This can help your employees feel heard and valued at work, and also remind senior leaders to pay attention to their efforts and ideas.
Share the spotlight
Don’t hog the mic for yourself. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak in meetings and encourage subject matter experts to regularly share their expertise and thoughts. If someone calls on you to share details on a project your team is running, pass the question to a member of your team so they can showcase their hard work and get facetime with more senior leadership.
If you’re someone who is frequently approached about speaking engagements, consider passing along the names of other qualified minority experts who would make good speakers. It’s not only an opportunity to foster goodwill with someone in your professional network, but it can also allow more diverse voices to share their experiences and knowledge. Similarly, you could nominate a minority colleague or peer for an award to call attention to and acknowledge their hard work.
Strong allies know they need to put themselves out of their comfort zones and learn more about the experiences of others who don’t look like them. This can take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, or speaking directly to a member of a marginalized group to understand what it’s like being in their shoes and better understanding how you, as an ally, can help. That might be as simple as putting your pronouns in your email signature to help normalize gender identity and show non-binary employees you’re an ally.
This may seem simple, but being able to listen is an extremely powerful skill of a strong ally. This step is two-fold. You need to not only be willing to believe others and validate their feelings, but you also need to know when to shut up and let someone else have the floor. While allies are an important part of any discussion, it’s important to remember you need to speak with the people you want to help, not for them. Know when your voice will add value and when you are better off amplifying the voices of individuals around you.
You don’t have to have all the answers to be an ally. Mistakes happen—if you mess up on your quest to be a workplace ally, just own up to it, sincerely apologize, move on, and promise to do better next time. We’re all learning. Showing humility, vulnerability, and empathy in the workplace is incredibly important because they not only make you more relatable, but they also set you apart as a trustworthy ally.
Allyship is a lifelong journey and fight. Making the world and the workplace a more equal place is a fight that can’t be won overnight. While these steps can get you started on your journey as an ally in the workplace, the hard work is up to you. While it’s important to think of the big picture, try to focus on what you as an individual can do tomorrow to make your workplace a better, fairer environment for every employee. Then, take action to be an effective leader and workplace ally.
If you are looking for a DEIB training for your organization, Hone offers live interactive classes that include topics like “The Dangers of a Culture of Conformity”, “Build High Trust Relationships”, and “Embrace Diversity with Inclusion” with a free 14 day trial. Sign up now.