How to become a better ally in the workplace

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The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police brutality have forced companies to take accountability for everything from lack of diversity in leadership to insufficient inclusion practices and policies.

Corporate statements responding to the aftermath — from speaking out against racial injustice to pledges to increase diversity and to donate to civil rights groups — are good first steps, but the most important thing one can do as an ally is to take action, says Risha Grant, a diversity, inclusion and bias expert.

However — that’s something that’s easier said than done, maybe especially in the workplace. Some people may not take action because of fear of doing something wrong, or upsetting a colleague. But in confronting racism and discrimination at work, missteps and people saying the wrong thing will be part of the learning process, Grant says.

“Things have been wrong for so long that if you take a little bit of heat, that's okay — because think about the heat that other people have taken,” she says. “But you still deserve grace and humanity. Yes, you need to do the work and educate yourself, but you still need the space and time to be able to get there, and grace to maneuver through this.”

From amplifying diverse voices to taking action and speaking up, Grant shared some steps employers and employees can take to become allies in the workplace.

Have employers and employees done a good job at advocating for their Black colleagues at work?

People don't like to deal with these issues, especially at work. So when you see something happen, instead of acting on it, we hope it's going to go away and bury it because it's really difficult. A couple of years ago, there was a situation at a major airline where someone was hanging nooses in the workplace, including on a Black employee’s desk. The employee sent letters and called [management], but instead of it being acted upon immediately, the Black employee had to get a lawyer, spending a lot of money to fix [the issue]. We don't want to deal with it. So, no, we have historically not done a good job.

You have to have a zero tolerance policy, and you have to have inclusive policies. The policies don't even have to be offensive; they can just not be great policies for everyone. When we don't think about everybody, inevitably, we leave people out. So companies have to start thinking inclusively.

People keep saying that our systems are [broken], that our systems don't work — they work perfectly. The system does exactly what it was designed to do, which is to help white folks continue to benefit and move forward and keep people of color and Black folks down, so we do not have equity. We absolutely have to have equity in our companies, because with equity we all have the same opportunity.

We’ve seen many companies put out corporate statements and do social media outreach in response to the killing of George Floyd and in support of Black Lives Matter. Is that a good way to show their alliance?

People need action. Black folks, people of color, diverse people — they need action. Yes, I think it's a great first step because everybody is talking about the conversation, but what's happening after the conversation? The conversation is important because, as I said earlier, historically, we don't have these types of conversations at work.

So while some companies say “man, this is rocking my world, this is all happening too fast,” it depends on your perspective. It's happening too fast if you are a company that really has no people of color in leadership. So you're trying to figure all this out, but for other people, this is moving incredibly slow. The allyship is a great first step, but I've been encouraging leaders to listen, validate and act. There has to be action. So if you're going to create that statement, be honest in how you create the statement. You can't just say "we value a diverse workforce" and then you look around and there's no diversity.

So saying you're an ally, saying you're a diverse company, that diversity inclusion is a core value, means nothing to the people who don't feel it. If they don't feel it or see it, if it's not tangible, it means nothing. And your employees are your best ambassadors for your company. So if they're walking out there saying “whatever, they're just checking a box,” then no, it doesn't matter.

Are most companies making changes that have actual impact?

I feel energized because I'm seeing companies and white people show up in ways that they've never done before. I'm telling companies that want my consulting “if you're looking to check a box, I don't want to work with you.” If your leadership is not on board, I don't want to work with you because I know that we're not going to make much progress. Because if leadership won't even get on the call, then we're not going anywhere. I heard someone say, and I know it comes from Black Lives Matter, “are you going to be a part of the moment, or are you going to be a part of the movement?” and I thought it was so well put. If you're gonna really be a part of the movement, then what systemic change will you commit to making? What is that systemic change?

So, you have to ask yourself that as a company, and you have to be okay with hearing the answers. And it's hard to sit there and listen to your employees talk about a toxic work environment, because there's always a stark difference in what leadership feels and what the employees feel is going on in a company. Employers absolutely have to get into the game with an attitude of why it’s good for their company and for their employees.

What can people do to become allies in the workplace?

They can speak up and stand up. To me, white men are in the best position to be allies, especially those in leadership. Because if they make an unpopular decision, they don't worry about losing their job, or about if their families are going to eat. So they can take the risk that a lot of people can't, because losing their jobs would so adversely affect their quality of life that they may not be able to pay their bills or take care of their family.

If you see something, say something. Don't allow the jokes that are supposedly harmless to be said in the workplace. When you look at mentoring, ask yourself if you have enough people of color, or enough women who you're looking at that you need to mentor. You can be an ally simply by [giving credit]. It's about speaking up, and it's about amplifying other voices. It's about you being willing to deal with the consequences of standing up for something that you know is wrong. And not only that, your kids are going to see that, as well as the people that you influence. Because we all have groups of people that we influence, so doing the right thing reverberates throughout so many different areas of your company and of your life. You have to speak up, even when it's unpopular. You have to stand up, even when you're standing by yourself — and that's what real allyship looks like.

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Diversity and equality Workplace culture