How to be an ally in the workplace

Review, Challenge, Educate

Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organisational change and cultural adaptability.

2020 has been a catalyst for many companies to take a systematic approach to tackling inequalities and building more inclusive cultures. A combination of the Black Lives Matter and the differential impact of Covid have heightened awareness and built a groundswell for change.

Companies have responded by reflecting on how advantage and disadvantage is operating in their organisation, and doing things about it. They have carried out forensic analyses of key processes such as recruitment and selection and performance management to ensure that they don’t discriminate or disadvantage groups. Learning and development has been refreshed so that diversity and inclusion is woven into every part of it, and senior staff have KPIs on equality alongside meeting financial and other targets.

Individuals have also been encouraged to play their part in creating an environment that tackles systemic racism and sexism too, and not only leaders and managers – we all need to be proactive.

The best organisations make it clear that they and all staff need to play their part, whilst recognising that the more senior people are, the more responsibility they have. Saying and doing nothing means that we collude. Doing nothing is not a neutral ‘do no harm’ position. White people have a responsibility to be anti-racist otherwise Black and Asian people are left to do that work at the same time as being on the receiving end of discrimination. Men have a responsibility to be anti-sexist otherwise women are left to do that work as well as experiencing discrimination. Some people think you have to be disabled to create an environment that is inclusive of disabled people. You don’t.

The same is true of all aspects of social identity. We are all individuals – it’s what makes us and the world interesting – but it’s because of our social identity that we each receive more or less praise and encouragement, career development opportunities, or pay than others. We can be privileged because we are non-disabled at the same time as being discriminated against because of our age.

This matters greatly in workplaces. It’s why great inclusive leaders understand that whatever their own social identity, they can be an ally to groups of people – staff or otherwise – who experience prejudice, harassment and discrimination. Whether you’re a leader or otherwise, in this article, we detail how you can be an ally in the workplace.

Allyship is about how we use our privilege

First, it’s not about whether we have privilege or not, it’s about how we use it. If we own our privilege (whether we want it or not) and recognise how we benefit from it (whether we want to or not) then we can set about educating ourselves on the experiences of marginalised individuals – those in the ‘out’ group.

We need to educate ourselves

Take responsibility to learn more about those who we wish to be an ally to. That might involve reading, or listening to colleagues who experience what you don’t, for example, racism, sexism, ageism, always ensuring we recognise that it may be difficult or painful for people to tell their stories of discrimination and prejudice– yet again.

Review internal policies

Once you understand more, it’s time to review internal policies and processes to make sure that they are not compounding the ways that advantage and disadvantage can operate in relation to:

  • Recruitment and selection – a forensic analysis of how bias might be operating. We tend to clone ourselves
  • Service design – is it inclusive?
  • Budgeting – who gets what resources?
  • Meetings – whose voices are heard?
  • Performance management – which groups of staff get higher ratings, and which staff get disciplined?

Challenge stereotypes

Whatever our privileges, always robustly challenge any stereotypes and assumptions made about people – because they are, for example, 27 or 57 years old – the moment they are uttered. If we aren’t experiencing ageism we can, with work, become attuned to the microaggressions that a 57-year-old can be on the receiving end of and do something about it by pointing out the assumption or saying ‘that’s not very funny’, when yet another so-called joke is made about older people being slow on the uptake. If we are men, we can be the person who steps in when a remark is made about how a woman looks. Our advice to men who make comments about the way women look at work is… don’t, (it doesn’t matter whether you think it is complimentary or not).

Stereotypes can impact on which people get ‘tapped on the shoulder’ when a promotion comes up, and assumptions can mean that just because someone hasn’t got a degree they aren’t considered for the management training programme.

Allies can expect hostility – but far less than those discriminated against

A great workplace ally will inevitably get flak when they challenge the status quo – if none comes your way, you may want to ensure you are doing enough challenging!

Allies in the workplace actively change the ways things are done so that it is not only the people who look like the people who are in senior positions that do well. If I am in a group that has benefited from this unfair advantage, I may well fight back. Allies spot this and are ready to challenge the fightback.

Commonly, this will be a variation of people asking “what about me?”. As an example, that might take form of some men saying “what about the men?” when introducing a positive action programme designed to address chronic underrepresentation of women. In this instance, an ally would explain that the programme is not anti-men but will help to ensure women get a fair chance of progression.

Throughout the Black Lives Matter protests we have heard “all lives matter” – or even “white lives matter” – as if drawing attention to racism and the discriminatory treatment of Black communities and the disproportionate number of Black people who die in police custody somehow takes something away from white people.

Simply put, it’s up to allies in the workplace to challenge and unpick these specious, kneejerk arguments, alongside the work done by companies to address systemic racism and sexism. Such conversations will be uncomfortable, but they mean that the people on the receiving end of racism, homophobia or any other kind of discrimination do not also have to deal with their colleagues failing to take responsibility to create an inclusive culture. As one Black client told us recently, ‘the silence of white colleagues was deafening when comments were made about how “all lives mattered”.’

Allies, ‘it’s not about you’

Being a workplace ally does not mean putting yourself at the centre of the story. People experiencing discrimination don’t need ‘rescuing’. Great allies don’t position themselves as ‘knights in shining armour’ as that places the ally in a position of power over the ‘recipient’, ironically. Women don’t need men to rescue them, but do want them to take responsibility for saying and doing things to tackle sexism by, for example, being the one to say ‘That’s not funny’ when someone makes a derogatory remark about women.

Instead, allies listen, read, reflect, and think about what in the system needs fixing, or which conversations need to be had. It is often quiet work that does not come with a medal, but the most important thing is that it will be noticed by those on the receiving end of discrimination, and contribute to a more inclusive workplace culture.

Allies have a plan and stick to it

If you want to be a great workplace ally, you need to have a plan regarding what you are going to do in the next year:

  1. Talk to individuals with influence who are using out of date language, explain why it’s out of date, and think about how to ensure all staff know what the current standards are.
  2. Tackle someone whose ‘jokes’ are creating a hostile environment for people in the outgroup. These so-called microaggressions don’t feel small to those receiving them.
  3. Chair meetings in ways that ensure minoritized voices are heard and listened to with respect.
  4. Speak out about the need for diverse interview panels.
  5. Require recruitment agencies to come up with diverse shortlists – it’s amazing what can be done when a contract states specific action.
  6. Speak out about discrimination. If you are not on the receiving end of it, you are much more likely to be heard and be taken notice of.
  7. Hand the mic to minoritized staff whenever you can.
  8. Use your institutional power to change procedures and processes to address inequalities – a zero-tolerance policy in relation to bullying and harassment for instance.
  9. Understand that allies will get it wrong sometimes. When you do, own your mistake, apologise, learn, reflect, read, and then get back to your allyship.
  10. Say and do things to address inequalities, day in and day out, as that is how all types of discrimination are experienced. Being an ally and encouraging others to be one are positive and powerful actions. Allyship is central to creating diverse, inclusive cultures where differences of all kinds are recognised and celebrated, and patterns of systemic disadvantage are identified and tackled. And failing to be an ally is not a passive, harmless position. If we don’t do things that allies do, then we collude. ‘If you are not with us, you are against us’.

Learn more about EW Group’s Inclusive Leadership training, Racism and Allyship training, and diversity audit and analysis offerings, or get in touch today.

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