What it Means to Be an Ally in the Workplace
Does your organisation reflect the true diversity of society, or does your workforce look remarkably similar? If it’s the latter, your company is far from alone.
Building an inclusive workplace is difficult, and it’s easy to feel as though we’ll never be able to have any real impact.
However, you do have the power to make a difference, by being an ally.
But what does it mean to be an ally in the workplace, and how can we create a more inclusive organisation for everyone?
What is an ally?
Although there’s no strict definition of what it means to be an ally, broadly it refers to someone who unites with another individual or group to promote a common interest. When we’re talking about how to be an ally at work, this is typically around the subject of equality and diversity.
Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, a writer and the Director of the Diversity Programs at Mayo Clinic, provides a more specific definition of what it means to be an ally in the workplace:
‘When a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group's basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.’
Different types of allies
In order for us to become an ally in the workplace we need to understand what that looks like.
There are four types of allies: sponsor allies, mentor allies, cultural allies and structural allies. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
The role of the sponsor ally is to vocally support the work of their colleagues from underrepresented groups. The aim of this form of allyship is to improve their colleagues’ reputation and position within the company.
This might be achieved through talking about a person’s work and expertise during a meeting with senior stakeholders, shoutouts in company newsletters or by recommending that person for specific projects and learning opportunities.
A mentor ally works closely with a colleague — typically someone who is a different demographic from themself — to support, encourage and coach them.
A mentor ally will provide honest feedback and can act as a sounding board for problem solving and career advice. A mentor ally is also well placed to act as a sponsor ally for the person they’re supporting.
An example of acting as a mentor ally would be to help a colleague practice a presentation or high stakes conversation, role-playing difficult questions and offering advice on ways to improve.
Society continues to struggle with issues around diversity and equality, while exclusionary language and practices can be so deeply embedded that even well-intentioned individuals can’t spot it.
The role of a cultural ally is to take opportunities to coach others on how to be more inclusive, with the ultimate aim of fostering a culture of inclusion throughout the organisation, and encouraging others to step up to becoming allies.
For example, if someone was using the incorrect pronouns when referring to a transgender colleague, a cultural ally would provide feedback to that person in order for them to recognise the language they were using and the impact it could have on that colleague’s wellbeing - and help them become an LGBT+ ally.
To create an inclusive workplace it’s not enough to educate people — often the organisation needs to be improved at a structural level.
A structural ally uses their position of power and influence to rework organisation policies and practices. This might include reviewing hiring and performance management practices for systemic bias, implementing an equity grievance process for reporting exclusive actions, and running pay equity analysis.
How to be a better ally
To create a fairer and more equitable workplace we all need to work together. Here are four ways you can be a better ally.
1. Do your research
Although we’re all aware of racism and discrimination, this does not mean we have a good understanding of its history or continued influences on marginalised groups.
The first place to start on the journey towards becoming an ally in the workplace is to do your research. But remember, don’t ask colleagues who come from that group to explain it to you — it’s not their job.
Read up on the history of the movement you want to ally with, including what has been achieved and what still needs to change.
Don’t practice ‘performative allyship’
Following the Instagram ‘Blackout Tuesday’ campaign that came in for criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement, Australian journalist Monisha Rudhran summed up performative allyship in a 2020 article published in Elle:
‘Performative allyship can cover a wide scope of behaviours, but it's essentially the practice of words, posts and gestures that do more to promote an individual's own virtuous moral compass than actually helping the causes that they're intending to showcase.’
Public shows of support and solidarity have their place, but make sure that’s not all you do. Always ask yourself if you’re taking an action with the intention of being a true ally, or because it portrays you in a positive light.
Be ready to continue to make mistakes…and learn from them
We can’t unlearn our preconceived ideas about society overnight - becoming an ally is an ongoing process that takes time and hard work. You’ll continue to make mistakes, whether that’s things you say or do, but the important thing is to learn from them.
How to encourage allies in the workplace
We’ve looked at how you can become a better ally at work, but how do you encourage others and build a more inclusive and diverse culture?
Communication between different groups is essential, in particular active listening to marginalised groups. This allows people to hear about others’ experiences, both at work and in society, and understand what they can do to become a better ally.
Communicate the business benefits of diversity
A report conducted by McKinsey showed that companies with more gender-diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to achieve above-average profitability, while more ethnically and culturally diverse organisations achieved up to 36% more profitability.
Demonstrating these types of business benefits could be key to securing buy-in for inclusion initiatives from senior management.
Seek feedback and take action
Speak to people and find out what they think about the current organisational structure and how it can be improved.
If you suspect people might be uncomfortable providing honest feedback, consider circulating an anonymous survey. The results of this survey should be transparent and made available for everyone in the organisation to see. You can then use these results as the basis for taking action moving forwards.
Allyship is key to building a supportive and inclusive workplace culture for everyone, regardless of their background — but many organisations still have a lot of work to do.
If you’re one of them but are keen to make a positive change, get in touch with the team at Sodexo Engage to find out how we can support you.
We can offer a range of solutions that enhance employee engagement and wellbeing, including an employee assistance programme and recognition platform, all of which can ensure your workforce feels appreciated and supported.