AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Encouraging allyship in the workplace
The word “allyship” made news headlines in December 2021, when it was chosen by Dictionary.com as its word of the year – even though it had only been added to the site as a word in November of that year.
In its entry on allyship, Dictionary.com notes that allyship was first recorded in English in the late 1840s in the sense of “the state of being associated with another or others for a common purpose.” Now, the site says, the term has developed a specific nuance: allies are not part of the group that they support but stand in solidarity with the group nonetheless.
The Oxford Dictionary puts it more succinctly: allyship is “active support for the rights of a minority or marginalised group without being a member of it.”
Associated Press notes that after the death of George Floyd in 2020, white allies of the BlackLivesMatterMovement – and the word allyship – proliferated as racial justice demonstrations spread. In these wider social contexts, an ally might speak up for a specific group facing inequity in a community or a culture.
In the workplace allyship is often about tackling leadership and cultural structures (for instance unequal pay or a lack of diversity) that can stop some employees from reaching their full potential, says diversity data company, Diversio. While anyone can be an ally, in Europe and the United States, for example, they are typically colleagues whose status comes from their sex (male) or their skin colour (white) or their position of seniority. These allies support employees who don’t have the same advantages – for instance women of colour, LGBTQ+ community or members of another minority group.
Why is allyship important?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States believes that allyship is critically important. “Allies offer some of the most effective and powerful voices for those who are underrepresented. The practice of emphasising inclusion and human rights by members of an ‘in’ group, to advance the interests of an oppressed or marginalised ‘out’ group (allyship) is… one of the most critical activities that make the NIH a more inclusive environment for all employees, patients, and visitors,” the organisation says.
Inclusivity is important because inequity in the workplace can have a disproportionate impact. “The average American spends over 90,000 hours or about a third of their life at work, and our jobs have a significant impact on our physical and mental health, our incomes, our lifestyles, and our identities,” adds Diversio.
And yet inequity might not be addressed, simply because it is not seen. Leadership, employees and the organisations they create may hold biases that they are not conscious of. In these circumstances, if a worker does not have the same opportunities as others, they will possibly also not be heard in the same way as someone from a majority group, and their concerns may not be treated as seriously. Using allyship as a diversity and inclusion tool in the workplace challenges this system and uses majority or leadership voices to amplify all voices.
What does allyship in the workplace look like on an individual level?
Sociologist Holiday Phillips notes that it is important to distinguish between performative and effective allyship. A real ally is someone from a non-marginalised group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalised group – critically, they transfer the benefits of their privilege to those who lack it. Performative allyship, on the other hand, is when someone from a non-marginalised group professes support and solidarity with a marginalised group in a way that either isn’t helpful or that actively harms that group. Performative allyship is usually associated with social media virtue-signalling (posting a black square on an Instagram profile, for example). Companies that make public statements of support for movements like Black Lives Matter but don’t work on their own DE&I initiatives are guilty of performative allyship, as are team leaders who voice support for issues such as mental healthcare without instituting any substantive policies, like paid time off or employee assistance programmes.
So, what does effective allyship in the workplace look like? It can take many forms, according to Teambuilding.com (which hosts in-person and virtual team-building events):
Become an advocate: A good ally recognises their own power and uses it to amplify the voices of others who lack it. An example would be advocating for a co-worker to take on an important project or new role.
Share the spotlight: Good allies are ready to share credit, to encourage people to share their knowledge and ideas, and to defer to team members who have done the legwork on the project.
Pay attention: This means believing others, validating their feelings, and knowing when to stay quiet and allow someone else to have the floor. It also means talking with people, and not for them.
Own mistakes: If an ally fails to be a helpful co-worker and makes a mistake, the courageous thing to do is admit it, apologise honestly, learn from the experience, and move on. Being humble, showing vulnerability, and demonstrating empathy in the workplace are crucial.
It’s not about the ally: It’s important to remember that allyship is not about the aspirant ally – it’s about marginalised communities. That means going about the business of supporting others quietly. Speak less, listen more and avoid becoming the focus of attention.
But sometimes, it’s necessary to act. That means bystander intervention: taking concrete steps towards improving the workplace. If there is a case of microaggression or a co-worker uses improper pronouns or mispronounces a name when referring to another co-worker, the ally will intervene, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable or threatens the status quo.
What can business leaders do to encourage allyship in the workplace?
Allyship in the workplace starts with an inclusive company culture, says Great Place to Work. Diversio says senior executives with the power to alter policies can support this sort of workplace culture by:
Listening and learning. Note who is not being included, and whose voices carry the least weight.
Creating a place at the table. Creating committees, roundtables and groups to address inequity is important. Ensure everyone gets a chance to speak or a chance to contribute in whatever way they feel most comfortable.
Giving proper acknowledgement: Take the time to recognise and appreciate staff regularly and publicly. A simple “that was a terrific idea” or “thank you” at a team meeting or for a job well done go a long way. Middle managers should share this information with upper management.
Tracking and discussing metrics. Data verifies and quantifies where inequality may be happening. Keeping track of metrics can give companies a specific number or specific goals to aim for, making progress easier to track.
Taking a new approach to feedback. It’s important for leadership to hear feedback to become good allies, but blind spots may prevent the right feedback from getting through. Create a safe space where all individuals know they can share ideas without worrying about negative repercussions. Think about different ways of asking for feedback. Some employees may feel more comfortable sharing feedback anonymously for now. Open-ended questions such as “what am I missing?” or “what would help our team to become more inclusive?” are also helpful.
Becoming serious about tackling gaslighting and diminishing behaviours. Leaders should normalise speaking up about inequity or discrimination and take steps to prevent gaslighting or minimising language. For example, if someone says a statement made them uncomfortable, do not diminish their experience by saying “he was just joking” or “she didn’t mean it.”
Emphasising education: Employees often lack awareness of their privileged experiences and the steps they might take to alter them. Workers unfamiliar with the mechanisms of privilege, microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and systematic racism have a harder time listening, so including allyship in workplace training is important.
Being a good example: Leaders need to establish norms for using inclusive language, and make it clear that they welcome a broad set of viewpoints in the workplace.
Above all, says Nika White in an article for Entepreneur.com, don’t pay lip service to the concept. Before launching into a company-wide pledge, or sending out a press release, leaders need to understand what it means to deliver on promises made. “Dig into the work or consult with a DEI specialist to see what being aligned with diversity, equity, and inclusion work will cost you, your team, and your business. When you are aligned, prepared, and honest about the messaging you wish to share, you will be taking critical steps towards actual allyship.”
Next week: Ask Alto: What is bystander intervention, and how to do it