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How to Be an Ally

What if you went to work every day looking forward to collaborating with your supportive co-workers - where you were not subjected to micro-aggressions or privileged comments? That would be a morale and productivity boost - no quiet quitters there. However, studies show that marginalized individuals in significant percentages, can feel alone, lacking sponsors or support, which unfortunately impacts morale, productivity, or tenure with the company.[1] Another study found that employees who encountered belittling and berating behavior at work experienced a reduction in productivity and creativity of up to 61%. Even those who merely witnessed moments of incivility experienced a drop in productivity and creativity of up to 45%.[2]

The benefits of a collaborative environment show themselves in better job performance. A recent study found that “a high sense of belonging within an organization was positively correlated with a 56% improvement in job performance and 75% fewer sick days.”[3] Most employees want to be accepted and supported.

There are many reasons these adverse work environments exist, but today I will focus on a solution - - becoming a better ally. We can all use allies, both in our personal and professional lives. Spend a few moments reflecting on your best work experiences. What comes to mind? You likely felt supported, like you had a voice, and were appreciated. You can share those affirming experiences through the journey of becoming an ally. Here are some steps and ideas to achieve that goal.  

How to be an Ally                                                                                               

Let’s begin with a definition of allyship. Dictionary.com provides the following:

An ally, ultimately from a Latin verb meaning ‘to bind to,’ is used to describe ‘someone who supports disenfranchised and underrepresented groups of people within our own country, such as minorities and those in the LBGTQ+ community.’”[4] In 2021, Dictionary.com chose Allyship as its Word of the Year, symbolizing its growing importance. 

Sometimes it is unclear what being an ally means; you may feel uncomfortable stepping out of your comfort zone at work to assert your allyship. Or you may be an ally already and want to consider how to do more or become a better ally. One crucial aspect to be aware of is a finding from a Yale study, “that people directly affected by an issue should be the ones to decide which goals are most important and how to achieve them” and, “[w]hat activists really want, the research shows, is allies who are willing to put ego aside and work toward someone else’s vision.” [5]

Given these findings, where to begin? How to make an impact? How to influence others to be allies?  Let’s explore these points and provide a blueprint for how you can be an effective ally as a bystander, sponsor or champion. 

The Phases of Allyship

Some of you may say, “I am an ally; why do I need to do anything more?” Often there is a disconnect between our intentions and reality (the elephant in the room). A survey from Deloitte reported that “while 92 percent of employees see themselves as allies, only 29 percent actually speak up when they perceive bias.”[6] Another study found that only 45% of Black women and 55% of Latina women felt they had strong allies at work. Despite many employees viewing themselves as allies, less than a third of white employees say they’ve consistently taken a public stand to support racial equity. Only 42 percent (4 in 10) advocate for racial equality in private discussions, and less than 10 percent mentor or sponsor one or more women of color.[7] Additionally, constant disrespectful behavior can impact employees’ physical health, emotional well-being, and even their relationships outside of work. Ultimately, if disrespectful behavior goes unaddressed, employees may feel they have no choice but to leave the organization.

Note: You can implement any of these phases in any order.

Phase One of Allyship

The first phase of allyship is stepping in and speaking up when the actions of another negatively impact a co-worker. For example, you overhear a co-worker talking disparagingly about Tomas’ accent, or another manager vetoes Mary taking on a travel project as she just returned from maternity leave, assuming she would not want to travel. Will the conversation stop at maligning accents? Is Mary not willing to travel? It is sometimes as simple as openly probing the rationale behind a decision or comment or becoming better educated about the implications of our actions. Mary should have been asked about her travel availability as uninformed assumptions about someone’s preferences are just that, uninformed. And clearly, a respectful organization would not simply tolerate comments about an employee’s accent.

What can you do? Be a Bystander Ally

  • Speak up and indicate the conversation is not appropriate or take the individual aside and discuss the impact of his words
  • Suggest the manager talk to the employee first to understand if any perceived restrictions are based on facts
  • Talk to a manager about what you are seeing and request they step in
  • Talk to HR or another trusted source to discuss the work environment

And yes, it can be challenging to speak up but allowing those types of behavior to go unaddressed is worse and has lasting effects on your marginalized co-workers and your organization.

Phase Two of Allyship

The second phase of allyship is advocating for marginalized employees at your workplace. Think about recent promotion or hiring decisions. Were all qualified individuals considered? Who gets invited to lunch with clients or given opportunities to work on special projects? Are you getting to know other qualified candidates? For example, you overhear the vice president saying, “Bill is a better project lead as the client has much in common with Bill,” or you notice that Paula has stopped contributing to meetings as she felt her ideas were not considered or heard.

What can you do? Be a Sponsor Ally

  • Be conscious that all voices are included in meetings
  • Amplify ideas presented that seem overlooked
  • Ensure important and visible projects are fairly assigned and not just based on affinity bias
  • When discussing promotions or desired opportunities, advocate for those qualified individuals who are overlooked
  • Provide constructive feedback and support to all employees using consistent criteria
  • Insist that qualified, diverse candidates are added to all hiring and promotion candidate slates

Affinity bias is what it sounds like: we gravitate toward people like us in appearance, beliefs, and background. Allies become conscious of their affinity bias and take steps to ensure the bias does not impede their allyship. 

I have had amazing sponsors, many of them white females and males, in influential positions. They ensured I was given credit and discussed my skills and work product in meetings where new roles were being considered. But this was not always the case, and many will share that they do not feel sponsored.  If you are in the room where allyship is lacking, use your voice to support others. Think about the concept of “stretch positions” and whether affinity bias or perception of qualification bias impacts who receives those roles. Qualification bias means you are heavily considering external factors such as what college the candidate attended, their status in society, or what companies they have worked at in the past. For example, some companies only wish to consider Ivy League graduates because they perceive that these alumni are much more qualified than alumni from other colleges. These perceptions prevent engaging or developing individuals who are not like you or would otherwise be qualified.

Phase Three of Allyship

The third phase of allyship is being a champion. Being a champion means you are an agent of change and are consistently working to eliminate those historical, systematic beliefs and systems negatively impacting underrepresented employees. You realize the hiring process is based less on qualifications and more on “fit” within the environment. Are women in the workplace who speak up viewed as difficult? Are there no leaders of color in your executive teams? These issues require a deeper review of the status quo and an understanding of how to truly level the playing field by changing the status quo when necessary.

What can you do? Be a Champion Ally

  • Become aware of your privilege
  • Challenge the status quo and statements such as “that’s how it has always been done” here
  • Publicly identify yourself as an ally
  • Create safe places for the views and needs of underrepresented employees to be heard
  • Integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts into the values and culture of the company and performance objectives
  • Review policies and practices through the lens of further inclusion
  • Champion allyship programs in the workplace so others can understand how to be an ally
  • Ensure allies are being recognized for their dedication and contribution to the organization

Becoming an engaged and effective ally is a journey, and it can take time. But like every marathon, you take one step at a time. Invest in the time to build a plan to increase your allyship. Implement highly interactive training centered on creating more inclusive organizations with an emphasis on allyship. Consider undertaking a climate assessment to provide a comprehensive review of policies, practices, procedures, and strategies with the objective of identifying opportunities for improvement.

As a former chief compliance officer, I know that these efforts are key not only in developing and honing our skills in becoming effective allies, but also in supporting a productive, compliant, and respectful organization. 

 


 

[1] Hanselman, Heather, Editor, Understanding organizational barriers to a more inclusive workplace, Survey

June 23, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/understanding-organizational-barriers-to-a-more-inclusive-workplace.

[2] Das, Abhimanyu, Do You Work with a Jerk? Here are 6 Things You Can Do, April 5, 2019, https://ideas.ted.com/do-you-work-with-a-jerk-here-are-6-things-you-can-do.

[3] Lee, Susie, Why Belonging Is Key to Building the New Workforce, June 13, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-belonging-is-key-to-building-the-new-workforce/.

[4] Dictonary.com, What is an Ally, January 10, 2019, https://www.dictionary.com/e/what-is-an-ally/.

[5] Krause, Michael and Park, Jun Won, What Activists Want from Allies, December 02, 2021, https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/what-activists-want-from-allies.

[6] Rock, David, PhD., 3 Cognitive Behaviors to Allyship and How to Overcome Them, Psychology Today, April 15, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-brain-work/202104/3-cognitive-barriers-allyship-and-how-overcome-them.

[7] LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2020 Study, October 2021, https://leanin.org/women-in-the-workplace-report-2020/conclusion.