How To Be an Ally in the Workplace

Dakota Murphey

There can be no doubt that we are starting to get better at facing up to uncomfortable or awkward issues in the workplace.

The rise of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have taken topics that were once taboo and pushed them into the mainstream. In doing so, they have shown us how necessary it is to be allies to others at work. 

Promoting inclusivity and diversity in the workplace is a benefit not only to staff, but also the whole organization, as it can push forward new ideas and create a competitive edge for the company over competitors.

Ideas around this subject need to target everyone from the top level down the company, while understanding disability and the language of discrimination being key. Implementing diversity and inclusivity training can support everyone work at to be a better ally in the workplace.

Indeed, even if you feel like you are already doing a lot to be an ally, it is always a good idea to continue learning and re-learning these important lessons. 

In this article, we examine how anyone can be a better ally to underrepresented communities in the workplace. 

Educate yourself

The most crucial step to being an ally in the workplace is actually educating yourself. Learning – and in some cases unlearning – behaviors and mindsets is a crucial starting point, and there are many ways to do this.

It’s a great idea to start reading about ideas about systemic inequality, as well as finding ways to diversify the thoughts and ideas that you hear. It is too easy to go into the idea of being an ally with a fixed mentality – and actually, much of this way of thinking can be unhelpful, even if it comes from a good place. 

Promote creative expression

We can sometimes get stuck in the mindset that being an ally is all about political or economic matters in the workplace. In fact, there is a huge range of different ways to be authentically an ally to others in the workplace, in ways that you might not have considered. For example, promoting a colleague’s creative expression can be valuable.

“Creative support and encouragement is pivotal, especially from those who are in similar playing fields as you,” says Dondre Green, a photographer speaking to MPB. “This could look like sharing opportunities, advice, and budget negotiation numbers. I’ve seen even more Black creatives come together over the last few years and be put in positions to hire artists for assignments, too, which is a plus. In terms of representation, it matters.”

Listen to and lean on colleagues

It is important to resist the temptation to make assumptions about what is best for your colleagues. Even though your intentions may be good, you can end up putting your own presumptions forward and this might not end up being the best possible outcome from those you are trying to be an ally to. 

Remember that being an ally isn’t about doing what you think is right for an individual or community – rather it is about listening to what they need and putting that into action. And crucially, you need to think of listening as an act not only of understanding but also of empathizing.

It is therefore important to understand the nuances and language around racial issues and other issues that might affect minority groups  in the workplace by educating yourself, seeking professional guidance or finding support from colleagues.

The challenges that minorities and underrepresented groups face is often not the fault of the actions of individuals but rather systemic problems that won’t go away until they are acknowledged and faced.

Use your privilege 

Often misunderstood in the context of allyship, privilege is a key issue when it comes to providing support in the workplace. Some people take the concept of ‘privilege’ to be an insult or an attack on their personal character. This isn’t the case at all.

No one is saying that being privileged means that you have never faced any hardship of your own, or that you haven’t worked hard to get where you are.

Rather privilege should be seen as something that each of us generally has in one form or another.

Having a university education, for example, or facing no mental health issues, are forms of privilege that some people have. True allyship involves using the privileges that you have to defend or advocate for those who don’t have those same privileges. 

The first step in using privilege effectively is acknowledging it. From there it can be understood, and it can then be used to the advantage of those you are being an ally to. 

Many people are reluctant to be an ally in the workplace because they are worried that they might ‘say the wrong thing’ or act in a way that isn’t actually helpful. Don’t let this discourage you. Allyship exists in a sometimes awkward space and no one is expecting you to be perfect – it is all an opportunity for everyone to learn. 

Being an ally in the workplace is something that you can do that will make a genuine difference to colleagues’ lives and livelihoods.

Whether it is anything from ensuring that you are inclusive when listening to opinions in meetings, to implementing a diversity policy for future hiring; these are things that will benefit you and your business in the long-term. 

This blog was contributed to Workplace Fairness on January 4, 2023. Published with permission.

About the Author: Dakota Murphey is a contributor to Workplace Fairness.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.