White woman is an ally in the workplace

How To Be an Ally in the Workplace

Learning how to be an ally in the workplace starts with examining your own privilege. So I did. 

Using BetterAllies’ list of fifty potential privileges in the workplace, I reflected upon mine and kept a tally. My final score? Thirty-one.

That may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough to give me a leg up at work—and enable me to be an ally to those who are at less of an advantage.

Why underrepresented groups need allies

Workers from underrepresented groups (URGs) need allies—people with more resources and social power who are willing to take everyday actions to uplift them. Why?

Because, as Karen Catlin writes in Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces, Black and Brown people, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and members of other URGs in the workplace face a number of barriers to professional growth,

“from being consistently underhired, overlooked, and excluded from professional opportunities to being subjected to harassment (…) on the job.” 

Harassed and abused

  • In a survey conducted by the Gallup Center on Black Voices, one in four Black (24%) and Hispanic employees (24%) reported having been discriminated against at work in 2020.

  • In a 2021 survey of 935 LGBT adults by the Williams Institute, nearly one-third of LGBT workers said they had experienced discrimination or harassment in the past five years. 

    Two-thirds (67.5%) of LGBT employees reported that they have heard negative comments, slurs, or jokes about LGBTQ people at work.

One in five reported having experienced physical abuse—being punched, hit, or beaten up—and one in four having been sexually harassed at one point in their careers. 

  • Research cited by the International Labour Organization suggests that people with disabilities are more likely to experience work-related violence and harassment than people without disabilities.

Underhired, overlooked, and excluded

  • A 2017 study on Silicon Valley diversity by Ascend revealed that, between 2007 and 2015, the number of Blacks and Hispanics employed in San Francisco tech companies had decreased, despite companies’ alleged efforts to hire more underrepresented minorities
  • Although Asians were the largest minority group of professionals employed and the most likely to get hired, they were the least likely to be promoted to managers or executives.

    Asian women, in particular, were the least represented group as executives, at 66% underrepresentation.

Pressured to conform

Over 35% of African-Americans and Hispanics and 45% of Asians say they have to compromise their authenticity to conform to company culture

  • Similarly, LGBT people have to hide who they are to avoid harassment and discrimination.

    In Williams Institute’s 2021 survey of LGBT adults, half of the respondents said that they are not open about being LGBT to their current supervisor. One-quarter are not out to any of their coworkers.

    Many LGBT employees said they engage in “covering” behaviors, such as avoiding talking about their families or social lives at work.

    Some reported “covering up” because their supervisors or co-workers explicitly told them to.

The cost of feeling psychologically unsafe

Not being yourself at work has consequences. BetterUp’s 2020 research into belonging in the workplace shows that it affects workers’ confidence, engagement, and performance.

  • Employees who feel different from the rest experience 27% less psychological safety.

    They also perform worse. A single incidence of microaggression—a comment or action that subtly expresses prejudice—leads to an immediate 25% decline in performance on a team project.

The power of allies

Clearly, there’s a lot we need to fix to make workplaces more inclusive. Allyship—the wielding of one’s privileges to advance inclusion in the workplace—might be one of the most effective ways to do that.

The research team at BetterUp proved it, as detailed in their 2020 report “The value of belonging at work: New frontiers for inclusion.” Here’s how:

First, they induced exclusion

They conducted an experiment to discover the effects of being excluded. The experiment went as follows:

  1. They recruited people to play an online game of ball toss.
  2. They secretly paired participants with two bots that were programmed to exclude them. (How? By very rarely passing them the ball.)

Here’s what they found:

  • Exclusion is demotivating. Excluded individuals were less willing to work hard for the team that excluded them.

  • If one person gets excluded, the whole team suffers. When they realized that their work would benefit the team as a whole, the excluded individuals were less motivated to keep playing.

  • Exclusion hurts twice. Participants suffered first when they became aware of the exclusion, and later, when they stopped working hard and took a financial penalty for that.

  • Even micro-exclusions have negative effects. Experiencing exclusion for even two minutes (the duration of the virtual ball toss game) was enough to make participants less productive and engaged.

Then, they introduced an ally

The researchers then repeated the experiment with one important change. They kept the two jerky bots who mostly just tossed the ball to each other. But they added a new bot to the mix, one programmed to interact an equal amount with everyone on the team.

Essentially, they gave the human player an ally. To be clear, the ally bot didn’t favor the human—it just treated them fairly. As the researchers explained:

“The ally did not show any preferential treatment towards the participant, but rather made sure to pass them the ball enough times so that it was clear that, compared to the other two excluders, the ally was making sure to include the human player in the group task.”

Something amazing happened. Bringing in an ally canceled the effects of exclusion. When an ally was present, participants were still motivated to work for their team in spite of being excluded by two team members.

Researchers concluded that:

  • An ally can increase someone’s sense of belonging.

  • The presence of an ally prevents the consequences of exclusion.

  • It takes one single individual behaving in a fair manner towards everyone on the team to cancel the effects of discrimination. 

Allyship is so powerful, researchers said, that it can be used as a preventive measure against exclusion. In their words:

“…we discovered a vaccine that prevents the negative impact of exclusion before or even during an experience of exclusion.”

How to be an ally in the workplace

So, to advance inclusion in the workplace, we have to make sure that everyone gets the ball. With our underrepresented coworkers’ consent, we should become allies. But where do we begin?

Here are ideas from Karen Catlin’s Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces. As you’ll see below, there isn’t just one formula for how to be an ally in the workplace.

1. Vocally support the work of underrepresented colleagues

Become a sponsor of colleagues from marginalized groups by vocally supporting them in situations where it will help boost their status and credibility.

  • Mention them in meetings. Say things like, “What I learned from (name of underrepresented team member) is the following…”.
  • Talk about their expertise in performance reviews and discussions about promotion.
  • Recommend them for stretch assignments and learning opportunities.
  • Share their career goals with decision-makers.

2. Draw public attention to their expertise

Take your allyship beyond the confines of your workplace and into public venues. Defer to colleagues from URGs in visible, industry-wide events and conferences.

  • At events, when appropriate, direct questions to them instead of answering them yourself.
  • Advocate for them to speak at events.
  • Recommend them for keynote speeches.

3. Help amplify their voices

Ensure that people from URGs are heard and respected at work.

  • When they make a good suggestion, repeat it, then give them credit. Here’s what that looks like: “I agree with [name]’s suggestion for reducing hate speech on in-game chats.”
  • Create a code of conduct for meetings and shared communication channels (email, Slack, etc.) to prevent interruptions and other forms of microaggression.
  • Invite them to speak at meetings, write for the company newsletter, or take on other visible roles.

4. Bring them into exclusive circles

Use your power and influence to bring underrepresented colleagues into exclusive circles.

  • Advocate for them to be present at important events when they’re not on the invite list.
  • Offer to introduce them to influential people.
  • Ask them to be a co-author or collaborator on a proposal or conference submission.

5. Educate yourself

Learn as much as possible about the challenges and prejudices faced by colleagues from marginalized groups.

  • Read publications, listen to podcasts, and follow social media accounts by and about them.
  • Ask them about their experience working in your organization.
  • Ask if you can join their discussion forums or Slack channels to listen and learn.

6. When you see something, do something

Be the opposite of a bystander. When you witness underrepresented team members being treated unfairly, do something about it.

  • Speak up if you witness offensive behavior or speech. Call the offender out, when necessary, and call them in whenever possible. Here’s the difference, according to leadership expert and executive coach Maya Hu-Chan: “When we call someone in, we acknowledge we all make mistakes. We help someone discover why their behavior is harmful, and how to change it. And we do it with compassion and patience.” She developed a 5-step communication approach for navigating these types of conversations.
  • Shut down off-topic questions asked to test them when they’re giving a presentation.
  • If it seems like they are being bullied or harassed, check to see if they’re okay and if they want you to say something.

7. Let them confide in you

Create a safe space for underrepresented team members to express their fears, frustrations, and needs.

  • Believe in their experiences.
  • Listen and ask questions when they describe an experience you are unfamiliar with.
  • If you’re a manager, hold regular office hours and encourage them to talk to you about anything that’s bothering them at work.

Keep in mind that:

  • Listening is essential. . “The most helpful allies in my life have centered my needs and experiences over their desire to help by asking how they could help and listening to what I needed,” says Grey Osten, a trans person, and a software developer at TextExpander. Jay D. Rae, DE&I consultant and co-founder of Trans Affirming Spaces (TAS), seconds that. “The person doing the helping should assume that they don’t know best how to help, and be willing to listen carefully to the instructions given by the person that they are wishing to help.” 
  • You need consent to take action. “Consent is important in all matters, and in situations where someone may seem to ‘need’ an ally or a moment of advocacy, that type of help may not be desired. In fact, unwanted advocacy could serve to alienate or infantilize the person that you are wishing to help,” says Jay D. Rae.
  • Changing systems > helping individuals. Consider taking action to drive structural change, i.e. becoming an advocate in addition to being an ally. As workplace inclusion nonprofit Catalyst notes on their website, although allyship and advocacy are used often interchangeably, they have slightly different meanings. “Allyship means you’re doing the hard work to actively support people from marginalized groups—often those with whom you have relationships or who are in your sphere of influence. Advocacy is taking action in service of a cause, and the people it affects, to influence decision-makers and decision-making. Both are important tools in your toolbox.” 

Allyship is a journey

Here’s the thing about allyship: You will fail. Repeatedly. There will never come a point where you will know everything and be able to anticipate everybody’s needs. And that’s okay because you can always ask questions. Allyship is a journey, not a destination.

Use TextExpander to foster belonging

Need help replacing biased words and phrases with a language of belonging? Subscribe to TextExpander’s Public Group for inclusive language. It works through autocorrection. When you type a word or phrase that can make someone feel discriminated against or excluded, TextExpander autocorrects to a neutral, inclusive alternative. Learn more and sign up here.