It is hard to miss that June is Pride Month. Every year, I see more rainbows and other signs of support during this time of year. This highly visible celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community is an annual reminder to me that as I have grown in age and understanding, I have made a conscious effort to be an “ally” within my personal and professional lives.
The term ally is first noted in the 1990s by PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), but the concept is much older. In this context, an ally is defined as “someone outside of the LGBTQ community that supports their fight for equality and rights.”
Allyship has been a journey for me – as it has been for millions of others. But even the journey has been a journey. I know other parts of the country have been much more progressive, but here in the Bible Belt, not that many years ago, we were called “supporters.” But this year the term (and hopefully the movement) has exploded on to T-shirts and other items in stores.
How Do You Become An Ally?
Pride Month is a special month for both the LGBTQIA+ community as well as allies. Being an ally doesn’t have to mean that you jump on a Pride Parade float, join a march, or dress in rainbow colors (although you certainly can!). Being an ally in your day-to-day life is more subtle. And in the workplace, allyship has the power to generate substantial change. It’s about deliberately and actively upholding the dignity of others knowing that the playing field isn’t fair. And wanting to use your privilege and power to advocate for others
Why is Allyship Important in the Workplace?
In the Fortune 500, just 3 CEOs are openly LGBTQIA+, 5 CEOs are black, and 37 CEOs are female. There’s a lot of work to be done before companies, especially at the executive level, achieve equity, and allyship is one essential ingredient for pursing that goal.
“Stop being so sensitive.” “Everyone is so easily offended.”
When minority groups stand up for themselves, they’re often met with these kinds of responses. They risk being branded as “difficult” or “aggressive.” Others may remain quiet to keep from risking their career advancement or making their colleagues uncomfortable.
For example, a minority colleague gets cut off and spoken over in a meeting. And they speak up and say, “Excuse me, I’d like to finish what I was saying before we move on.” Even though those are perfectly polite words – they could elicit raised eyebrows. On the other hand, a person in a position of greater privilege (by virtue of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) may be able to make the same request without the same response.
This is where allyship comes into play. An ally in the workplace is conscious of shifting the power back to the minority by saying, “I’d really like to hear what ____ was going to say.” Allies don’t advocate for others because those colleagues CAN’T speak up for themselves – but because they may not.
So How do you Become an Ally in the Workplace?
Foster Awareness and Attention
Of course, the law and most companies’ policies prohibit discrimination. All discriminatory behavior should be addressed. But just because you don’t see overt discrimination – doesn’t mean it isn’t going on. The cumulative effect of less obvious words and actions, stemming from the unconscious biases we all have, can be just as harmful.
We can only stop what we see. Educate yourself on bias so that you can identify problematic workplace conduct when it occurs. Below, is a reading list that has been recommended to me.
Recognize that Discussions are Richer When There Are Diverse Voices at The Table.
Actively ensure that employees with a diverse range of viewpoints are included in meetings. If some attendees don’t speak up – offer the floor and solicit their thoughts. If people try to shut down opinions that are different than their own, encourage the group to remain open to new ideas and give them full consideration.
Don’t Seek Credit
A true ally’s goal is supporting others in whatever way is most beneficial, without recognition. That may be visible and assertive, or it might be quiet and slight. Match your tactics to the situation.
Ask Before Acting
Do not assume everyone wants you to step in when they experience bias. Remember that allyship is about the needs of others. Check in with people privately before acting or speaking on their behalf.
Here are some questions to ask:
Hey, I saw what happened back there. Did that make you uncomfortable?
Would you like me to speak with that person or take action in another way? Or would you like me to support you in doing so?
If that happens again in the future, how would you like me to handle it?
What can I do to support you?
Give Grace to Yourself and Others
As I mentioned before, this is a journey and you will not always get it right. And neither will the other allies around you. And that’s okay. Approach allyship with humility and a willingness to learn. Ask questions. Apologize for missteps and move on. Offer the same grace to others who may be even earlier in their evolution as an ally and encourage them to do the same.
Don’t place the burden of educating you on the same people you are advocating for. Seek out books, articles, and lectures to deepen your understanding. Here are several recommended books that can help you better understand the dynamics of privilege and how you can be an ally.
We Can’t Talk About That at Work! How to Talk about Race, Religion, Politics, and Other Polarizing Topics by Mary-Frances Winters
Learn how to have difficult conversations with colleagues safely and productively from the CEO of a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm.
How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Creating Trust, Cooperation, and Community Across Differences by Jennifer Brown
If you are in a senior leadership position, this book offers a step-by-step guide for unleashing the full potential of your workforce through inclusivity.
Allies and Advocates: Creating an Inclusive and Equitable Culture by Amber Cabral
This practical book by an inclusivity strategist contains actionable strategies and tactics for serving as an ally in the workplace.
Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji
Leading psychologists teach the science of hidden biases as well as how to identify those biases and align your behavior with your intentions.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race by Robin DiAngelo
Robin DiAngelo is an anti-racism educator with vast experience working with employees of large companies. This book helps explain why people are so resistant to addressing their own biases and how we can engage more constructively.