How to Be an Ally for Racial Diversity at Work

Language about diversity, equity and inclusion is prevalent in the workplace and online, especially when it comes to race. But what does it really mean to be an ally for DEI? And what is the best way to support racial diversity in your workplace?

It may be tempting to avoid talking about racism because of fears it may be controversial or uncomfortable. But being an effective and long-term ally means countering inequity in a public way. That means having meaningful personal relationships and taking part in sponsorship and advocacy, according to the Harvard Business Review guide “Be a Better Ally.”

Here are some ways to become an ally for racial diversity and make a difference.

What Is an Ally?

An ally is usually someone who is not part of a marginalized group but actively supports that group in a number of ways. For example, someone who identifies as able-bodied may be an ally for someone with differing ability, or someone who is heterosexual may be an ally for people who identify as LGBTQIA+, according to the Association of Corporate Counsel.

People from many different groups, including different racial groups, may be allies for one another. “Regardless of background or motivation, all allies are united by the common belief that everyone deserves equal treatment,” according to the Tulane University School of Social Work.

An important piece of being an ally is being open to learning. In the workplace, an ally educates themselves about what others experience. They recognize their power as a peer, a manager or other leader, and “consciously use that power to advocate, sponsor, champion or amplify others,” Sonja Gittens Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at Asana, wrote in an email.

Allies take action and speak up in partnership with marginalized communities. They don’t speak over them, nor do they speak for them. Allies try to make things better on their own as well, in their daily lives and at work, not just when a marginalized community needs support.

For example, Asana’s Real Talk event series covers topical issues with the goal of encouraging a company culture about belonging. These programs aim to help employees better understand DEI and motivate them into action, and they also center company culture around belonging and inclusivity, according to Ottley.

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How to Be a Better Ally Regarding Racial Diversity

There are many strategies allies can use in the workplace to help support racial diversity. Beyond learning about others’ experiences and being aware of your power, Harvard Business Review has additional tips. A few are summarized below, but check out the full guide here.

Accept feedback. Allies can seek feedback in a sincere and conscientious way, such as being aware of the power between managers and employees from marginalized groups sharing ideas about DEI.

Bring diversity to the table. Ensure people from marginalized groups are included and that their perspectives are shared.

See something, say something. Allies should support people in the moment when racist and discriminatory behaviors or comments occur. Be aware of gaslighting tactics designed to make people doubt what they experienced.

Sponsor marginalized co-workers. Notice when people from different backgrounds are showing potential and foster their career development.

Insist on diverse candidates. To help minimize discriminatory pay gaps and improve retention, teams that are hiring new people should broaden recruitment efforts and rely less on the referral method. Have a more diverse candidate pool and watch out for bias while reviewing job applications.

Build a community of allies. One way to increase the network of allies to make changes last is through work events. Becoming an ally is a lifelong process, advises Carlos A.O. Pavão, assistant dean of DEI in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. According to Pavão, Georgia State University faculty, staff, students and alumni of all backgrounds are invited to participate in DEI activities and ask questions.

“One of the sayings that our dean often says is we see you, and we hear you. That leadership message resonates,” says Pavão.

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Communication Tips

Making sure that other people feel seen and heard is a critical part of being an ally. Here are some ways to make sure you are communicating effectively as an ally in the workplace.

Support uncomfortable conversations. These conversations aren’t always easy, but it’s important to be there for your work team. “Employees want to know that they can be comfortable speaking about the issues outside the workplace that impact how they’re able to show up in the workplace,” says Ottley.

Be vulnerable. Ottley also advises that a level of vulnerability is required to engage in these conversations. Company leaders should be willing to participate in these talks as well.

Learn backgrounds. Learn your co-workers’ names and how to pronounce them. If co-workers share where they come from and about their culture, listen to them.

Avoid being an ally out of guilt. Make sure that a decision to become an ally isn’t motivated by a desire to alleviate guilt, which can actually lead to feeling anger or resentment, according to the University of Kansas Community Tool Box.

Be aware of superiority. Remember that marginalized groups never deserve to be in a bad situation, so watch out for any thoughts along those lines. “If we think we are better than others, we are merely reinforcing oppressive messages,” according to the University of Kansas Community Tool Box.

Avoid saviourism. Saviourism happens when you emphasize what you would like to say and do about an issue that a marginalized community faces, rather than listening to what they want, according to 50inTech’s article “Do’s and Don’ts of Allyship in the Workplace”.

Avoid performative allyship. Avoid making superficial efforts, according to 50inTech. For example, a sign promoting support for a marginalized group in a storefront is great, but the store should also make a real effort to address the issues at stake.

Communication exercises. In Melinda Briana Epler’s TED Talk, “3 Ways to Be a Better Ally in the Workplace,” she advises echoing members of marginalized groups when they speak in the workplace to make sure they are heard, such as in meetings. Also, attribute their ideas to them to ensure they are getting recognition. You can also do an exercise where you call yourself out if you interrupt someone from a marginalized group who is speaking.

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Good DEI Initiatives at Work

Specific initiatives can also help move companies closer to developing and sustaining an ally culture.

Measuring progress. Measuring progress and creating solutions that work for the organization help, advises Ottley. And employees should have “a direct line-of-sight into the results and impact of DEI initiatives.”

Formalized sponsorship programs.Advancing people from marginalized communities can be a powerful tool, advises Ottley. Formalized sponsorship programs match top leadership with talented individuals. Matchups help candidates from marginalized groups “access increased advocacy, influence and support, which leads to increased opportunities and career advancement,” says Ottley.

Employee resource groups. ERGs are another way to help reinforce a culture of belonging. “ERGs also build community, lift an organization’s collective literacy around diversity and inclusion, support attracting diverse talent, and help an organization identify future leaders,” says Ottley.

Additional Resources

The following resources can help you become a stronger ally in the workplace for DEI and racial diversity.

— The University of Kansas Community Tool Box Chapter 27. Working Together for Racial Justice and Inclusion outlines evergreen, detailed information on becoming an ally and helping organizations support racial and cultural diversity.

Do’s and Don’ts of Allyship in the workplace from 50inTech explores what “allyship” is. The company helps women make a career in technology.

Guidance for Improving Staff Engagement: Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in SOAR includes advice for employers seeking to support BIPOC staff. SOAR is a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration project to help end homelessness.

— has an Anti-Racism Library. It also has training programs and resources tailored for different groups of people, including white workers, marginalized groups, staff and managers.

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