7 Kinds of Allies Literally Anyone Can Be at Work
Today, the workplace is becoming increasingly diverse. If you conduct a random survey, you will probably notice that most workplaces comprise people from different races, cultural backgrounds, genders, ages, religions, physical abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, and so on.
This is because companies are starting to realize the benefits of diversity. For instance, according to the World Economic Forum, companies with higher diversity scores are reporting higher innovation revenue.
Just because workplaces are diverse, however, it does not necessarily mean that they are inclusive. In an ideal world, everyone in the workplace, regardless of their individual differences, would be equally valued, welcomed, and accepted.
They would have equal opportunities to do their best work and move up the career ladder, their contributions would be equally valued, they would have equal access to resources, and everyone would be treated fairly and respectfully.
In truth, however, we know that this doesn’t always happen. There are people who get bullied at the workplace simply because of their race or sexual orientation.
There are qualified people who get passed over for promotions simply because of their gender or because of a physical disability. There are people whose opinions and contributions at the workplace get ignored simply because of their religious beliefs, their cultural background, or their age.
While creating a truly inclusive workplace can be a challenge, everyone has the ability to make a contribution to make their workplace inclusive and effect real change, and one of the most effective way of doing this is by becoming an ally.
WHO IS AN ALLY?
While people in minority and underrepresented groups are usually on the forefront of fighting for diversity and inclusion, they cannot effectively solve diversity and inclusion problems on their own. This is where allies come in.
An ally is someone who is not part of the underrepresented or minority group, but who takes action to support people from the minority group and help destroy any external barriers that limit the ability of people from the minority group to contribute their skills and talents or access resources and opportunities.
An ally uses their position of privilege to advocate for someone else who doesn’t share the same privilege.
If you hold a position of privilege, it is your responsibility to be an active ally and take action that will help the less privileged become more successful at the workplace.
The good thing is that just about anyone has the ability to be an ally to an underrepresented or minority group. As a man, you can be an actionable ally to women.
As a woman, you can be an ally to people of color. As an able bodied person, you can be an ally to differently abled persons. As a straight person, you can be an ally to colleagues who are part of the LGBTQI+ community. As an older person, you can be an ally to younger colleagues.
It’s good to note that being an ally is not always going to be easy.
It takes courage, because being an ally will sometimes mean speaking out against someone who makes jokes or comments that are demeaning to someone from a minority group. Sometimes, doing this could even lead to your own exclusion.
For instance, if the people you called out for racist, sexist or homophobic jokes or comments are part of your peer group, they might stop inviting you to places or events, or even start undermining your work.
Sometimes, being an ally means that you might be forced to report your colleague to a manager or supervisor because of continued harassment of people from minority groups by the colleague. Such actions are definitely not going to be easy for you.
That said, there are some easy ways of being an ally without necessarily having to take a hardline stance against your colleagues. Below are seven roles you can play as an ally to help support people from underrepresented or minority groups at the workplace.
1. THE SPONSOR
A sponsor is an ally that vocally supports a person from a minority group and their work with the aim of helping boost the credibility and reputation of the person, especially in situations where the sponsor notices that the contributions of the underrepresented colleague are being dismissed or ignored.
In my first job immediately after I graduated from college, I had a boss who played the sponsor role really well. Being fresh out of college, I was full of innovative ideas, and eager to make a mark, I wasn’t afraid of sharing my ideas during meetings.
However, I noticed something unexpected. Being a fresh graduate, no one took me or my ideas seriously. Even after sharing ideas that would have been game changers, my colleagues simply dismissed my ideas for no other reason than the fact that I was a young person with no industry experience.
Gradually, I started making less and less contributions in the meetings. After all, what was the point of sharing ideas if they were all going to be dismissed?
Fortunately, my then boss noticed this before it was too late and he took the role of sponsor. Before meetings, he would call me to his office and have me share my thoughts about the meeting agenda.
During the meeting, he would then say something like, “In an earlier conversation with Martin, I learnt that…,” or “I was speaking to Martin earlier, and he had an idea that I think would be quite useful here.” He would then invite me to share or elaborate my idea.
By doing this, my boss actually got my older colleagues to pay attention to my ideas, and this certainly made a huge difference for me.
Just like my first boss, you can support your colleagues from minority groups by taking on the role of a sponsor. You can do this by talking about the expertise you see in them, giving them opportunities to make their contributions, recommending them for learning opportunities and stretch assignments, and so on.
2. THE CHAMPION
A champion is an ally who champions for the inclusion of underrepresented groups in public avenues – such as conferences and industry-wide events, media events, and so on – with the aim of giving them greater visibility and sending a message to large audiences about the need for inclusivity.
The action of Andrew Grill at the 2015 Online Influence Conference is a great example of what it means to be a champion for underrepresented groups.
At the time, Grill was a Global Managing Partner at IBM, and had been invited to speak at the conference, alongside five other men. At some point during the conference, a woman named Miranda Bishop, who was part of the audience, asked a rather obvious question: “Where are the women?”
Prompted by Miranda’s question, the moderator at the conference asked Grill and the other panelists to talk about the issue of gender diversity. After sharing a few thoughts on the topic, Grill realized that neither he nor the other panelists were fully equipped to address this topic, because they were all men and couldn’t therefore see the whole picture without a woman’s perspective on the topic.
Grill then did something totally unexpected. He stepped aside from the panel and asked Miranda to take his place in the panel.
With this action, Grill championed Miranda, and at the same time made a bold, public statement in support of gender diversity.
The publicity stemming from his action even led to the creation of GenderAvenger, a non-profit organization whose objective is to reduce the frequency of all male only panels at events and conferences.
There are several things you can do as an ally to play the role of a champion. For instance, if you are asked to address issues related to or directly affecting people from underrepresented groups, have someone from the underrepresented group address the issue instead of doing it yourself.
Alternatively, if you notice that people from minority groups have been left out in certain events or activities, you can act as a champion by advocating for their inclusion.
3. THE AMPLIFIER
For people from minority groups, having their ideas ignored, dismissed, or even stolen is something they have to contend with day in day out.
Various researches and studies have shown that women speak a lot less in professional situations, they are more likely to have their contributions interrupted, and they are less likely to be get credit for their contributions.
A famous example of women getting interrupted is Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs while she was giving her acceptance speech, just to tell her that she wasn’t deserving of the award. The video below shows how common it is for men to interrupt women:
When president Obama first took office, majority of his top aides were men, and as a result, the women working at the White House frequently found themselves in situations where their contributions rarely made it to the president’s ears.
Their contributions were mostly ignored, and in the event that the ideas couldn’t be ignored, the men at White House took over the ideas and presented them as their own. In a bid to get their voices heard, the women working at the White House came up with a strategy for amplifying each other’s contributions.
Whenever a woman made a great contribution that the men in the room ignored or tried to brush over, the other women would bring back attention to her contribution and at the same time give her the credit for the idea.
This made it harder to ignore or steal women’s contributions, and eventually, their voices and contributions started making it to the president’s ears.
Even if you are not part of the minority group, as an ally, you can play the role of an amplifier by making sure that the voices of people from the underrepresented group are heard and respected, and making sure that their contributions do not get stolen.
Whenever someone from a minority group makes a good contribution, but you notice that the other people are ignoring the contribution, repeat the idea and attribute it to whoever made it.
Doing this from your position of privilege will make sure that the others pay attention to the contribution made by the person from a minority group.
Where possible, you should also give people from underrepresented groups opportunities to share their contributions, ideas, and opinions in meetings, company newsletters, and other public avenues.
4. THE ADVOCATE
Ad advocate is an ally who uses their privilege, power and influence to give a person from an underrepresented or minority group access to highly exclusive circles.
When you play the role of an advocate, you should watch out for situations where people from minority groups are unjustly omitted from events and activities, and then take action to address this by holding your peers accountable to ensure that all colleagues are included in these events and activities regardless of their individual differences, provided they are qualified.
Shortly after Wojcicki was appointed YouTube CEO, she learned about an important conference for players in the tech and media industry.
The conference was invite-only, and most of the top leaders in the tech and media industry had been invited. Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, she had not been invited to the conference.
Afraid of having YouTube unrepresented in this important meeting where plans affecting the whole tech and media industry would be made, Wojcicki turned to Bill Campbell for help. Bill was quick to acknowledge that Wojcicki deserved to be at the conference, and using his power and influence, he was able to get Wojcicki an invitation to the conference.
Just like Bill Campbell, you can play the role of advocate by going through the invitation lists for important events – dinners with key partners, important industry conferences, strategic planning meetings, and other career building opportunities – and checking whether people from underrepresented groups have been invited. If you notice that people from these groups are missing, advocate to have them included.
You can also play the role of advocate by offering to introduce people from minority groups to powerful and influential people within your network, or offering these people opportunities to take part in important activities, such as collaborating on a proposal, co-authoring an industry paper, and so on.
5. THE SCHOLAR
According to an article published on HBR, men are increasingly being invited to attend women’s conferences and employee resource groups.
The reason behind this is that people are starting to see that men can only be better allies to women at the workplace by understanding things from women’s perspectives. And the available evidence shows that this is working.
Among organizations where gender programs are deliberately including men, 96% are seeing progress, compared to just 30% when men are left out. This inclusion of men in gender diversity programs is an example of what it means to be a scholar.
Being a scholar is all about trying as much as possible to learn about the challenges and prejudices that people within an underrepresented group go through on a day to day basis.
Understanding these challenges and prejudices, in turn, allows you to become a better ally to people from these groups.
As a scholar, you should be very careful not to insert your own ideas, experiences, opinions, or biases. Instead, you should focus on listening and learning from the marginalized group.
To act as a scholar, you should commit yourself to finding out as much as you can about the marginalized groups within your industry. You can get this information from blogs, podcasts, publications, and social media profiles dedicated to these groups. You can also talk to colleagues from these groups and ask them to share the experiences they go through at work every day.
Finally, you can also act as a scholar by asking to be invited to sessions where people from these marginalized groups are discussing their issues if they are comfortable with your presence. If you do get invited to these sessions, there are some things you need to keep in mind.
First, your role in the session should be to just listen. Avoid the temptation to share your opinion. You should also respect these spaces.
If you are given a chance to speak or ask questions, remember that it’s not about you. Focus on finding out what you can do to help tear down any barriers preventing people from these groups from being treated equally and with respect.
6. THE UPSTANDER
Back in high school, I remember this one time me and a group of friends entered the classroom to find the class bully harassing a small-bodied black student. Afraid to turn the class bully onto ourselves, most of us simply stood and watched as the bully continued harassing the black student.
One of my friends, however, decided to step up to the bully and asked him to leave the black student alone. Whereas the rest of us decided to be bystanders, this guy chose to be an upstander.
An upstander is an ally who chooses not to sit back and watch as someone from a marginalized group gets harassed or disrespected.
When they see action that they deem to be wrong, they take action against the wrongdoing. When someone makes jokes or comments that are offensive to people from a minority group, a bystander will speak out against such comments.
When they see someone from a marginalized group being treated unfairly, upstanders are not afraid to speak up and fight for the rights of this person.
To be an upstander, you should always speak up if you notice any action or behavior that is offensive, demeaning, disrespectful, or unfair.
If you notice someone being bullied or harassed, you should be ready to stand up and fight for them. Whereas others opt to be passive observers, you should take action to protect those from marginalized groups.
7. THE CONFIDANT
I am once again to use an incident with my first boss to explain what it means to be a confidant.
Like I mentioned earlier, being a very young guy and a fresh graduate, many of my colleagues did not give me the respect I deserved.
Apart from ignoring my contributions in meetings, they did several other things that gave me quite a hard time, from delegating many of their unwanted tasks to me simply because I was younger to making derogatory comments about my age and relative lack of industry experience compared to them.
It got to a point where I was thinking of quitting my job, but before doing that, I decided to talk with my boss about my experience.
Honestly, I didn’t even expect him to believe me. I was only doing it in the hope that it would help any other young person who came after me not to undergo the same kind of experience I had.
Surprisingly, after sharing my experience, my boss believed me and understood what I was going through.
He gave me support and advised me on how to deal with my colleagues, in addition to standing up for me where possible.
This made me change the decision to quit my job, and the period that followed went on to be a very productive period for me. Simply because my boss chose to act as a confidant.
A confidant is an ally who creates an environment that makes people from minority groups comfortable enough to express their needs, frustrations, fears, and challenges.
Confidants provide a listening ear without being judgmental, believing that the people from minority groups are being truthful with their stories.
To be a confident, you need to be ready to believe the experiences of others. Avoid the temptation to assume that such things do not happen simply because they have not happened to you, and avoid the temptation to be judgmental about the experiences of these people.
If you are a manager, you can also act as a confidant by creating an environment where all your team members feel free to discuss with you any issues affecting them.
To create fully diverse and inclusive workspaces, we should not leave the work of advocating for inclusion to the affected.
Instead, we should act as allies to people from marginalized groups and use our positions of privilege to support them and help destroy any external barriers that limit the ability of these people to contribute their skills and talents or access resources and opportunities.
The good thing is that just about anyone can be an ally to people from a marginalized group, and you have seven different kinds of approaches to being an ally.
Therefore, you need to find an approach that works best, and then use it to provide support to people from these underrepresented groups. For instance, you might not be very good at being an upstander or an advocate, but this doesn’t mean you cannot be a confidant or a scholar.
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