For some years now and especially after the Black Lives Matter protests last year, the word ‘ally’ has been bandied around. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, an ally is someone who stands up for any person who is being oppressed.
What Does it Mean to Be an Ally in the Workplace?
At work, being an ally means making an effort to support colleagues or employees from under-represented or marginalised groups, whenever you can.
It doesn’t mean you understand what it’s like to experience the same kind of oppression as a colleague.
Instead, an ally recognises their advantage or ‘privilege’ and acts as a powerful and supportive voice alongside their under-represented or marginalised colleagues.
But What Can I Do?
These steps are a good starting point.
One of the essential actions in being an ally, whatever level you work at in your organisation is practising acceptance.
To support a colleague effectively, work on being non-judgemental. Recognise and acknowledge your own biases – we all have them.
Easier said than done, I know! No need to beat yourself up – accept that you are a ‘work in progress’.
Listen and Acknowledge
When someone shares their experience, a good starting point is to listen.
Push aside any preconceived notions you might have and let them talk without asking questions.
Say something helpful such as “I’m pleased/grateful you shared that with me” or “That must have been hard for you/ or hard for you to tell me”. Followed by “What can I do to support you?” or “How can I help you deal with this?”
Avoid jumping in with your own stories or responding with “Are you sure?” or ‘Maybe you’re being over-sensitive’.
The workplace can be a hostile environment, so be more inclusive.
Welcome New People
Entering a workplace that is not particularly diverse can be intimidating for a new employee.
Go out of your way to welcome your colleague or employee. Introduce yourself and get to know them. Remember how you felt on your first day at work!
Understanding Unspoken Rules and Networks
Nearly every industry, workplace or team has unspoken rules (the way things are done around here) and networks (who are the real influencers). These are not always obvious.
Share that information and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Invite the new employee into influential informal groups with your full support.
Accept Criticism Graciously
Let’s be honest; we ALL get it wrong sometimes. It’s hard to hear you’ve offended or embarrassed someone or just said ‘the wrong thing’ at a certain moment.
It is human nature to want to defend ourselves by denying it or saying the person ‘took it the wrong way’ which won’t help.
It’s better to take a deep breath and say something such as, “I am sorry for offending/ upsetting/ embarrassing you. That was not my intention, and I apologise’.
If You’re a Manager or Director
If you hold a position of power, use your influence to promote inclusion.
Be a Sponsor
Regularly talk about the expertise you see in others, especially during performance evaluation and promotion discussions. If you are in a position of influence, recommend people for assignments and learning opportunities.
Be a Flagbearer
Promote a code of conduct for meetings that encourages contributions from all members.
Direct questions about specific topics to employees with expertise instead of answering them yourself.
Make a stand within your company or industry for more black, Asian or people from minority ethnic groups, women, disabled people and other members of underrepresented groups to contribute as speakers, trainers, panellists and collaborators.
Be an Advocate
When someone has a good idea, repeat it and give them credit.
In any shared communication, make sure you credit the idea to your colleague or employee.
Be an Active Bystander
Speak up if you witness behaviour or comments that are degrading or offensive.
Explain your position or ‘own’ the problem, so everyone is clear about why you’re raising the issue. For example, “I found that comment you made in the meeting, offensive/ belittling/ unprofessional”.
Support colleagues who try to intervene, for example, “I agree with Jatinder, that joke was inappropriate.”
Don’t be afraid to raise an issue with HR or a more senior person, if you feel the situation requires further investigation or follow up.
Being an ally isn’t always easy. We’ve all witnessed situations that looked uncomfortable. Often we don’t say anything as we don’t feel it’s our business or we’re not sure what to say at that moment.
Take small steps. Start by getting to know your colleagues and build up.
Even if you speak up once out of five situations you’ve observed, it is better than never speaking up at all.
For more information and advice or practical online courses, visit Josie Hastings Associates. With more than 25 years’ experience in delivering training on equality, diversity and inclusion, we can help you develop a culture of allyship or deal with challenging behaviour at work.
If you want to learn more about creating a respectful workplace culture, you can purchase my book. ‘It Stops Now’ on Amazon.