Empowering diversity: how to be an ally at the office

Right now, the nature of diversity in our society is at the forefront of conversation for every business out there. How do we help build companies made up of teams that are truly inclusive? And although “diversity” has been a buzzword for a long time, both organizations and individuals are taking a serious, long-overdue look at what that truly means for them. People of color and people from underrepresented groups have often lead this kind of dialogue in the past, but as we look to boost more voices, it’s more important than ever to be a good ally.

Allies are people who are not necessarily a member of a traditionally underrepresented group, but actively work to support that group. In the workplace, that can feel like an extra uncomfortable conversation, with everyone frequently trying to maintain a professional level of distance from the hard social questions of the day and to avoid awkwardness. Yet collectively, we’ve reached a moment where avoiding the conversation is no longer helpful or possible. If you’re looking for ways to be a better ally in your own workplace, there are several ways to go about it.

Share your platform

When companies try to improve diversity, initially it often takes the form of getting feedback from employees. While all employees have a valuable perspective, one of the primary things you can do as an ally is to ask yourself, “Am I the best person to be speaking to this?” If someone from an underrepresented group would be able to speak more fully to the issue at hand, it’s right to yield the mic to your colleague.

For example, if you’re asked about your perspective on gender issues but you’re part of the majority gender group in the office, pass it off to someone who might have more direct insight. “I do see a lot of inequality here, but I think my colleague T has an interesting perspective on this.” Or if you’re asked to be the lead on something and know that a colleague would be an equal (or better) fit, suggest that person instead. (Of course, don’t blindside your colleagues by putting them on the spot if they’re reluctant. It’s better to discuss it with them beforehand, if possible.)

Be the mediator

We all know that any given workplace is made up of many different personalities—some more verbal and forceful than others. In meetings or other discussions, it’s not uncommon to see some voices dominate, while others are more content to hang back or hesitate. A good ally keeps an eye on all the voices and helps to amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard. Part of that is being a cheerleader: “V made a good point about the sales potential. V, can you expand more on how that would work?”

Being a mediator helps ensure that voices that might otherwise be marginalized are heard and that different perspectives are allowed into the conversation. And if you’re not really a “speak up in the public arena” person yourself, you can still be an ally—invite people to meetings where they can offer insight and gain recognition or give them the chance to speak in other ways (like email) by elevating their voice to people who might not otherwise know them.

Advocate for better representation

“See something, say something.” It’s a cliché, but it’s also a very effective way to be an ally. If you see that someone or a group isn’t being represented in a conversation or decisionmaking process, speak up. The exclusion may not be intentional. It’s possible that the powers that be will say, “Hey, you’re right, we should definitely have X in this conversation.” Or if the exclusion was intentional on some level, this adds public accountability. Those in charge will need to justify their decision to exclude a group from this discussion. Decisions that can affect people of all genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, ages, religions, and physical abilities should have stakeholders across as many of those groups as possible, providing their perspective.

Being an ally goes beyond a hashtag or an “I’m with you” acknowledgment. It may not even be easy, because it involves taking a potentially uncomfortable look at the privilege and exclusion that exists in a place you go every day—and even within yourself. The more active you are in assessing your own behavior and working hard to boost others, the more you’re helping your workplace to be a better and more diverse place.

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