It’s easy to claim you’re an ally. It takes little effort to attend a few diversity training sessions, add your pronouns to your email signature, or read a book about diversity, equity, or inclusion (DEI). While these actions are a start (you have to start somewhere!), it takes intentional effort to become a meaningful ally—one who is actively trying to cultivate an equitable and welcoming workplace. A meaningful ally is also someone who will have the courage to take action when they are aware of “ist” behaviors (racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) in the workplace.
My latest book is called Actions Speak Louder for a reason. Anyone can talk a big game, but when a situation calls for an ally, will you show up?
Let’s talk about 5 ways to work on become a more meaningful ally.
Listen (and Observe)
There’s hearing, and then there’s listening. Hearing is passive and simply means we’re absorbing what is being said to us. Listening is more active and involves both hearing and comprehension. And then there’s observing—actively taking in your surroundings. When you truly turn on these senses and start to pay attention to colleagues of different backgrounds, you gain a deeper understanding of what they’re going through. What are they saying to you or others? What are they not saying? Does anyone appear uncomfortable or offput by something?
Part of active listening also involves asking good questions and thoughtfully listening to the response. Start engaging your colleagues to begin to understand their perspectives, their struggles, and what they need. Listening and observing are the first steps to developing empathy (which is essential to becoming a meaningful ally).
Continue to Learn
It’s difficult to know how to be a good ally if you haven’t taken the time to learn about meaningful allyship. When is it appropriate to speak out to defend someone? When should you stay quiet? Which actions are potentially hurting others or making them uncomfortable? Which words and phrases should you eliminate from your vocabulary? (Some of them might surprise you—read my past blog post for a list.)
All these questions can be answered as you continue to learn about the DEI space. Sign up for trainings, read articles and books, ask questions (if appropriate), and be aware. But don’t rely on your marginalized colleagues to educate you. It’s not their job, and many of them are probably tired of speaking on behalf of their entire race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
If you hear or see something offensive, it might be a good idea to call out the behavior in the moment. This depends on the situation, of course. In some cases, it may be better to speak with an individual privately about their behavior. Use your judgment, but be prepared to speak up at the drop of a hat. I suggest having a go-to phrase ready, so you won’t waffle about what to say. This can be as simple as, “Okay, that’s not cool,” or “Wow, not funny,” or “Did you really just say that?” If the situation seems to merit more than a gentle correction, it may be a good idea to talk with HR.
Another way to speak up involves actively bringing people into a conversation. If someone is usually quiet during a meeting, you might invite that person to speak (“What are your thoughts on this, Nissa?”). If someone is being interrupted or talked over, you might jump in (“I think Jo was trying to say something. Go ahead, Jo…”).
Be a Mentor or Sponsor
If you are in a position to offer guidance to a new colleague, or someone who has a new role, do so! Use your privilege and experience to help lift others up and offer them advice and guidance they might not have access to. As a mentor, you might meet with your mentee on a regular basis to check in, chat, provide guidance, and set goals. As a sponsor, in addition to meeting occasionally, you will also act as an advocate to help your colleague climb the ladder or accomplish their professional goals.
You don’t have to invite your marginalized co-workers over to dinner or become best friends (although you could!), but there are several ways to be a welcoming colleague—to be a “bridge builder.” Bridge builders attempt to establish authentic connections between people of various backgrounds and identities. They include everyone in the conversation, they make sure everyone is invited to that golf game or lunch, they let everyone in on inside jokes, they ensure everyone has the right info and tools to succeed. (I talk in more depth about becoming a bridge builder in my free eBook.)
Even your body language can demonstrate you’re welcoming to all. Make friendly eye contact, open the circle to let others in, etc. At the end of the day, everyone simply wants to be treated like a valued and respected human being. Your inclusive actions can help meet this very basic need.
It’s essential for people at all levels in an organization to step up and become better allies. This may take some time and hard work, but it is absolutely necessary for achieving a more equitable and inclusive workplace. Think of privilege as a superpower that you can use for good, to support and uplift those who don’t have it.