Workplace allies can be invaluable – whether it's men advocating for the advancement of women, white colleagues standing up for the rights of people of colour, able-bodied individuals thinking about the needs of those with disabilities, or heterosexual employees creating a workplace free of homophobia and transphobia.
But what actually constitutes a workplace ally – and what does it take to be a good one?
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. Being an ally is an active process and it’s not something individuals can simply bestow upon themselves.
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.
The different kinds of ally
Being an ally doesn’t have to be hard – action can be taken at all levels using straightforward, everyday efforts that can have huge impact.
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.
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. 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 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.
Tips for being a good ally
1. Know your privilege – before standing up for other people understand the rights and privileges you have that others don’t.
2. Listen and do your homework – in order to learn you need to listen. Know when to allow another person’s voice to fill the room and believe them wholeheartedly. Do some research; blogs, books, articles, tweets, news stories and YouTube videos all provide an insight into the key issues facing minority groups. Get up to speed on the issues that are important to the communities that need support.
3. Speak up, not over – an ally’s job is to support and use their impactful position to educate others but in a way that doesn’t speak over the community members they’re supporting. However, don’t be afraid to speak up when you see injustice play out in front of you – remaining neutral in this kind of scenario is simply maintaining the status quo.
4. Speaking up isn’t the same as speaking for – some worry that it is 'not their place' to comment on bad behaviour. Allies are normally in an advantageous and privileged position to use their voice to support others. Bring a supportive voice to the table where others are never invited to sit.
5. Make mistakes but apologise afterwards – nobody is perfect and unlearning problematic things takes time and effort. It’s OK to trip up now and again. Just remember that it’s not about your intent, it’s about the impact you may have had. If you make a mistake remember to listen, apologise, commit to change and move forward.
6. Ally is a verb – just saying that you're an ally is not enough, you need to follow up with consistent and authentic actions. Allyship doesn’t start and stop with 'I believe in you, good luck'. It’s an active process that requires constant work and action.
Remember, to be an ally is to:
- Take on the struggle as your own.
- Stand up, even when it feels uncomfortable to do so.
- Use your privilege to advance those who lack it.
- Acknowledge that, while you also feel the struggle, the conversation is not about you.
Alasdair James Scott is a senior consultant at PDT Global