How to Be an Ally in the Workplace

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How to be an ally
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Last Wednesday, SGO co-founder Felicia Jadczak led a webinar on the fundamentals of how to be an ally in the workplace. Armed with research and statistics, Felicia challenged participants to question our understandings of what allyship means and why we need it.

The role of an ally is to be actively working to end oppression. Even those of us who consider ourselves “with it” on matters of diversity and inclusion have been known to dismiss allyship as a social justice buzzword or an unnecessary label. It’s easy to think, “Of course I’m an ally! I’m a good person, I’m progressive, I don’t perpetuate stereotypes… What else is there to it?”

Actually, a whole lot, as Felicia reminded us. She grounded her explanation in definitions: an ally is a member of a social identity group who may hold some privilege as a result of their membership in that group. Allies know that it is their responsibility to continuously seek to understand their own privilege. They’re not afraid to leverage that privilege on behalf of others, even if it means sacrificing some of their own social capital in the process.

The most important part of being an ally is that allyship is defined by action. To use Felicia’s words, being an ally isn’t being a bystander, it’s being an upstander. So, how do we know when to stand up? We all know that if we hear something outright offensive or derogatory, it’s probably time to step in, but bias isn’t always as noticeable as that.

The world throws millions of information fragments at us constantly— way too much to take in at once. Our brains use biases as filters through which we process all that information, and the details we land on often reflect our biases and how we have been socialized. This whole filtering process happens so fast that we are unable to notice it, hence the terminology “unconscious bias.”

If we make an effort to pause and notice what we choose to focus on— what conclusions we draw from the information we take in— we may detect biases that we were socialized to develop, even if they’re incompatible with our own core values. Allies actively work to inform themselves about their own viewpoints so that they can challenge their problematic biases or assumptions when they detect them. When someone is unaware of their biases and they let that show, whether through explicit prejudice or something more subtle, that’s when an ally should step in.

Allyship is especially important in the workplace, an environment which can be fraught with power dynamics, stress, and pressure that can make biases reveal themselves especially noticeably. Even if you’re on board with allyship theoretically, it can be hard to know what you should actually do and when to do it. Here are some concrete suggestions from Felicia and the SGO team to get you thinking about ways you can be an upstander.

  • If someone says or does something derogatory or inappropriate, address it in the moment, if you can, or take the person aside later to talk about it in a non-aggressive way. Ask them if they would have made the same statement about someone with a different identity. Prepare to handle a situation like this before it happens— Felicia keeps a go-to phrase at the ready for tense moments like this: “Not cool.”
  • Next time you need to make a new hire, go out of your way to cultivate a diverse applicant pool. You can even encourage your team to review redacted applications– that is, reviewing applications without knowing the candidates’ names or seeing their LinkedIn profiles before assessing their qualifications. (It’s been done before, notably by comedian Samantha Bee, with spectacular results!)
  • Make a point to celebrate and give credit to your team members when it is due. Employees of underrepresented identities are much more likely to have their accomplishments and credentials overlooked than people with a dominant or majority identity. You can also try using micro-affirmations with your coworkers to make clear that you appreciate them and their work.
  • Notice who in their workplace is most like the “office mom”— who takes notes in meetings, who dumps out the coffee grounds, who sets up for birthday parties? Statistically, the responsibilities of “office housework” like this more often falls upon the shoulders of women, and especially women of color, than white men. An ally will acknowledge this pattern and do something to change it.
  • When conducting performance reviews or peer evaluations, remember that people with different identities are held to different standards. Give direct and specific feedback instead of relying on vague language that can easily slip into stereotypes. When evaluating female employees, for example, make sure your feedback is about their skills and their contributions, not their likability or their ability to be a friend.
  • Respect and use your coworkers’ correct gender pronouns, no questions asked. Remember that someone’s appearance doesn’t necessarily tell you what pronouns they use. It’s often okay to ask someone what pronouns they use, or to share your own pronouns to make clear that it’s safe for someone else to share theirs. If you hear a coworker referring to someone with the wrong pronouns, take the initiative to correct them instead of letting the burden fall upon the person who is being misgendered. (Note: This is especially important if the person isn’t present in the moment!)
  • Keep in mind that people may have disabilities that you don’t know about, and inform yourself about ways to create an inclusive atmosphere for people with invisible disabilities. For example, don’t assume everyone can stand through a long meeting, hear a presenter without a microphone, or follow a video without closed captions.
  • Remember not to assume someone’s financial status— what might be a simple lunch out for one person might be a real stress financially for someone else.
  • Pull someone up through mentorship or sponsorship, especially if you are in a position of authority.
  • Offer stretch assignments to less experienced or junior workers to allow them to grow into new skills and encourage them to learn.
  • Be welcoming and willing to cede leadership to someone else.

The bottom line is: continuously and consistently try to understand your own privilege. Side publicly and privately with those without your privilege. Send the message to your coworkers that your workplace values diversity and inclusion, and lead by example by putting in an active effort to reject the status quo.

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