Allyship in the workplace: How and why to be a workplace ally

Equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is a top priority for organizations across all industries, and rightly so. After all, in addition to the commercial benefits resulting from a broader range of approaches, working styles, and expertise, promoting EDI in the workplace is simply the right thing to do. 

And the good news is that, although more work is needed, lots of employers are already doing a good job of implementing initiatives in this area, with 69% of organizations surveyed in the Jefferson Frank Careers and Hiring Guide: AWS Edition investing resources into EDI initiatives.  

But there’s plenty still to be done.  

For EDI initiatives to be successful, it’s absolutely crucial that this is done authentically. For example, despite two-thirds of organizations in our guide investing in EDI initiatives, little over half (54%) have a clear EDI policy in place.  

EDI can’t be treated as a box-ticking exercise; it’s no good ‘talking the talk’ if you’re not ready to ‘walk the walk’. Therefore, it’s important that employers take proactive steps in creating an educating and empathetic workforce that welcomes, facilitates, and supports the EDI initiatives introduced.  

And being an ally in the workplace is an integral part of this 

But what exactly is a workplace ally? Why are allies in the workplace so important, how can you become one, and what can employers do to build a team of workplace allies in their organization? We’ll explore the answers to these common questions in this blog post.  

What is a workplace ally? 

The term ‘ally’ has popped up more in recent years as EDI has rightly become a more prominent part of professional and wider social discourse.  

So much so, however, that it can be reduced to all but a buzzword—employers and colleagues can claim to be allies without really understanding the definition of this term. And while their intentions are often good, this can significantly undermine the meaning and impact of allyship.  

So, what does it really mean to be an ally in the workplace?  

Generally, an ally is understood to be someone who stands united with another to promote a common interest, such as opposing oppression, unfair privilege, discrimination, and prejudice. The key word here is ‘promote’ – being an ally is about more than just believing in equality or empathizing with victims of oppression and discrimination; it’s about willingness to take action. 

And so, a workplace ally is any employer or colleague who actively promotes equality in the workplace by calling out injustice – be that against someone’s gender, race, age, disability, background, or other personal qualities—and supporting the victims of this discrimination in overcoming these hurdles at work.  

And most importantly of all, allies demonstrate this support at all times. From condemning ‘bro talk’ at work even if there are no women within earshot, to challenging biased decisions and processes you directly benefit from, being a true workplace ally requires you to be always at the forefront of cultural change within the business.  

Why being an ally in the workplace is important  

We all have an innate desire to be accepted, and in times of trouble, we all want someone to have our backs – and it’s important to remember that at work, this is no different. Whatever the job, whatever the industry, everyone has the right to feel safe and supported in the workplace. 

But unfortunately, this still isn’t the case across a significant proportion of the professional landscape. From representation and compensation disparities to an imbalance in opportunity across an industry or organization, these injustices have major real-world consequences not just on people’s careers, but also their livelihoods.  

To combat this, organizations must create a culture of allyship across their teams. In fact, in its 2019 The Bias Barrier report, Deloitte reported that workplace allies may be the missing link in making organizations across the globe more inclusive. 

This culture of allyship is a fundamental driver of positive EDI in the workplace as it unites employees not just in acknowledging systemic issues, but also in actively advocating for change. And while you may think you have enough allies in the workplace because your organization is strong in these areas, you must remember that EDI is a journey, not a destination—there is no endpoint, and so allies are continuously needed to ensure the workplace is always moving forward in a positive direction.  

Of course, this culture of allyship also contributes to a happier, more open, and more collaborative workforce, which promises a raft of commercial benefits to any organization and a wave of career benefits to professionals.  

Perhaps none more so than the positive impact it has on job satisfaction. For example, a report from the Centre for Talent Innovation cited in an article by Workplace, found that one-third (33%) of employees who perceive bias feel alienated at work. But in The State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion, Change Catalyst found that professionals with at least one ally in the workplace are nearly twice as likely to feel like they belong and be satisfied with their role and workplace culture.  

And it’s for this reason that over 9 in 10 (92%) respondents in that same report believe that allies have been valuable in their careers. A team full of allies ensures greater fairness and equality in opportunities, and while we’re all jostling for the chance to further our careers, allyship ensures this never resorts to a ‘dog-eat-dog’ environment. It’s not about sacrificing your own career opportunities for somebody else; it’s about using your voice and privilege to ensure nobody is overlooked, and everyone has the chance to succeed.   

Removing the barriers to career development and ensuring employees of all backgrounds and identities receive the recognition they deserve bolsters their career progression, improves the company culture, and, ultimately, has a significantly positive impact on job satisfaction. And this renewed job satisfaction does not only impact individuals, but ripples across whole teams. For example, global research from the Boston Consulting Group found that 81% of employees who work for an organization with an inclusive culture reported being happier—three times more than those who don’t feel included. 

A happy team is a productive team, meaning not only does a culture of allyship help an organization’s bottom line, but also its talent attraction and attrition rate. Top professionals want to work for top teams, and this means workplaces that reflect good values and foster a culture of allyship, happiness, and success. And in industries such as tech, where an ever-widening skills gap means organizations are competing for talent, the value of being able to attract and retain skilled talent can’t be understated.   

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5 ways to be a better ally in the workplace 

It’s important to know not just what an ally is, but what one looks like—and this means understanding both how to be an ally in the workplace, and just as importantly, what you’re doing wrong right now.  

Here are five ways to be a workplace ally and create a culture of allyship across your team.  

Educate yourself and leadership first  

Authenticity is fundamental to allyship, and so the first step to being an ally in the workplace is to ensure you’ve educated yourself and your leadership team.  

If decision-makers, leaders, and senior staff don’t have a proper comprehension of what they’re implementing and why, EDI initiatives and your culture of allyship will likely lack the credibility, empathy, and understanding it needs to have a real impact.  

From books and podcasts to lectures and courses, there’s a wide range of resources and information at your fingertips, so take the time to educate yourself and your peers about discrimination and its impact in the workplace.   

This education will also be incredibly valuable in assessing your current structures and processes. Remember: allyship is about action, and so it’s important to have those with the power to make these changes fully on board. With a senior team of well-informed allies, it becomes easier to identify and fix biases across an organization, from hiring practices to decision frameworks.  

That’s not to say that critiquing your own way of doing things is easy—far from it! But by starting with areas that cause you discomfort, you’ll start to build up your ability to challenge reluctance; a vital skill for any authentic ally.  

Invest in allyship workplace training 

With your senior team informed and inspired, next focus on the training and education of your workforce.  

To be good allies, employees must be given the chance to learn about their own biases, unlearn their faulty assumptions, and understand how they can contribute to a more inclusive culture. Of course, it’s good to make certain this training is coming from a good source to ensure it has the greatest impact—don’t just send your team a few resources to read; enroll them in online courses and programs, sign them up for webinars, and even bring in specialists for dedicated company training.  

Whichever option you go with, ensure this training covers fundamentals such as: 

  • Allyship: What is it and why is it needed? 
  • Unfair privilege: What does it look like and how can you recognize your own? 
  • Inequalities: How do you identify inequalities and why does representation matter? 
  • Power: What is positional power and what role does it play?  

More training means more allies in the workplace, yet despite this, barely half (51%) of organizations report employee training as one of their top EDI priorities. Understand the value of education and invest in it to reap the rewards.  

Be a mentor  

Allies help others to overcome barriers in their career—and mentorship can form a big part of this.  

With 37% of organizations in our Careers and Hiring Guide telling us that creating systems and processes like mentoring programs are a top EDI priority for them this year, businesses should look to develop mentorship opportunities as part of their EDI programs and initiatives.  

 The value of this can’t be understated, particularly for junior professionals, with the data showing that this can have a significant impact on career development and job satisfaction. For example, one study found that 30% of women and 32% of minority professionals reported mentoring as very important for their careers, compared with just over a quarter (27%) of all other employees. 

But any ally can be an effective mentor to a professional that needs it. Even if a workplace lacks a designated mentorship program or initiative, allies can still offer advice, feedback, and guidance to professionals to help overcome any barriers identified.  

Be an active listener and seek feedback 

It’s vital to understand: you are not the authority on inclusivity and allyship. 

Sure, your leadership team can play a hugely influential role in creating a culture of allyship, but as CIO at Broadcom, Alan Davidson, tells Forbes, this starts with, “giving people the opportunity to have a conversation with leaders.” 

You might think that your training, research, and enthusiasm have equipped you with the right ideas for fostering inclusivity and promoting a culture of allyship, but the reality is, the best input comes from the people it affects directly. As a result, it’s crucial that you ensure communication channels remain open and that these individuals feel confident about coming forward with feedback and their own ideas.  

Whether it’s focus groups, 1:1 meetings, employee surveys, or something else, always give those within your team the chance to voice opinions and feedback both before and after you implement any inclusivity measures. Not only does this guarantee these initiatives are having a purposeful impact, but it also ensures you’re being authentic. For example, though your intentions may be good, giving advice from a position of privilege lacks the first-hand experience and depth of understanding needed to be truly empathetic. At best, this comes across as ill-informed, and at worst, it can even feel patronizing and demeaning.    

And while you might think asking questions could be perceived as intrusive or offensive, providing they’re asked in a sensitive and professional manner, your curiosity will be appreciated. Proactively seeking different points of view and welcoming a respectful exchange of ideas should be celebrated in the workplace—just be sure to listen, reflect, and learn from the different inputs.  

An important part of being an ally is acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers. Instead, we should focus on appropriately supporting colleagues and employees with the assistance they need, when they need it. This requires you to be an active listener—somebody that not only hears what others have to say but takes it on board and puts it into action.  

By requesting feedback, keeping communication channels open, and being an active listener, you can ensure that you’re amplifying the right voices and offering the platform to the right people—making you a more effective ally all the while.    

Be an agent of change 

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Annual Performance Report, the agency received 73,485 new discrimination in the workplace reports in 2022—an increase of almost 20% from the previous year.  

And while that number might sound concerning, it becomes even more alarming when considering that the EEOC estimates that as much as 75% of workplace harassment goes unreported. With another report finding that almost half (46%) of employees say discrimination is a problem in their workplace, it’s vital we create more allies across the workforce who are ready to take action.  

To be a true ally in the workplace, you must be willing to challenge yourself and those around you. And this requires you to be proactive, not just reactive, in being a change agent. It means making an impact, and this needs to be done both directly and indirectly for it to be most effective.  

To be a direct agent of change, amplify unheard voices and utilize any position of privilege you may have, calling out the hurdles and biases that inhibit certain professionals from achieving their utmost potential.  

Just as importantly, aim to be an indirect agent of change by being an EDI role model in the workplace. Attract attention to larger action when it’s needed, but don’t forget that by setting a consistent example of how to think and behave, you’ll begin embedding smaller action into the day-to-day fabric of your organization which is just as important. 

EDI in the workplace is a journey, not a destination, and you need to take the first steps to get on the road. Remember that allyship is all about being unafraid to be the first to put one foot forward 

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