How to be an Effective Ally in the Workplace and Beyond
Sat, April 10, 2021

How to be an Effective Ally in the Workplace and Beyond


Allies in the workplace offer assistance and support to other employees. They take an interest in their coworkers to be an ally. It is a kind of relationship that can be mutually beneficial in terms of accomplishing their goals at work. Yet, one needs to be an ally first before they can expect to have allies.

Allyship at work: potential benefits and pitfalls

University of London’s Professor of Organizational Behavior Andre Spicer said that being a better ally in the workplace helps white employees stand against racism at work. There plenty of benefits that allyship at work brings. For instance, it can promote positive inter-group connections, develop a more positive workplace culture, and undermine other forms of oppression.

However, allyship also has some dangerous drawbacks. There are what we call the “performative allies” who may publicly show their support for a cause but not for the long term. Some allies can burden other people by requesting to talk about some traumatic experiences that they have not yet shared with others. Allyship may also crowd out the people they want to support in the first place. Furthermore, would-be allies may be interested in dealing with white guilt instead of helping the movement.



Tips to be an effective ally

Nevertheless, being an effective ally is a skill that can lead to more collaborative and open workplace culture.

1. Listen from a deep and receptive place

Becoming an effective ally in the workplace begins with deep listening. It is a process of listening that requires a temporary suspension of judgment to learn about the person talking. It is the willingness to receive the information whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Professor Spicer cited the recent work of business school professor Stephanie Creary from The Wharton School. In her talk about creating more inclusive workplaces in an era of discord, Creary mentioned that good allies start by carefully noticing and looking at the similarities and differences between others and themselves. An example of this would be understanding the privilege that white people enjoy and listening to the needs and experiences of others. People can only engage in effective allyship in the workplace and beyond after hearing these experiences and needs. This is because they can start to appreciate the values of other people and act accordingly based on those differences.

2. Reflect on your own biases

No matter how accepting or open-minded we believe ourselves to be, we can sometimes carry bias and prejudice. Psychologist Leslie Ashburn-Nardo even said that most allies are not bias-free. However, they are more aware of the gap between what they do and what they should do. They also work towards closing such a gap.

3. Build trust

In a study titled "Beneficiaries' Attitudes toward Allies in Social Movements," authors Jun Park from the Yale School of Management and team found that allies were observed more favorably if they invested time in building trust and did not take high profile public roles. To build trust, it needs understanding about the issues involved, acting selflessly, and remaining loyal to the group, and making sacrifices for the group whenever needed.

4. Have bigger goals

Research by psychologist Taylor Phillips revealed that allies who are motivated by goals about social transformation and go beyond themselves were more likely to impact meaningful change compared to those allies driven by selfish motives.

5. Take action

One of the most significant roles that allies can play is challenging and educating members of their group as seen in the study that appeared in the Journal of Social Issues. Author Ronni Michelle Greenwood from the University of Limerick studied the 1921 Tulsa race riot. She asked why the city council of Tulsa in Oklahoma gave reparations for the outbreak of violence only after nearly 80 years. During the violence, hundreds of people were killed and a black neighborhood was destroyed.

Greenwood found that white allies of the blacks gave emotional testimonies and these played a crucial role in encouraging the white city council to take action. The findings suggest that sometimes, challenging people within their group is the best way to be an effective ally even if the process is uncomfortable.

Spicer pointed out that when a black person challenges a racist remark, their words are interpreted as “rude.” Yet, when a white person does the same, their words as seen as “persuasive.” In the same way, when a black community push for a diversity initiative, they are perceived as self-interested but white people who do the same initiative were considered as objective.



Workplace discrimination: statistics

According to database company Statista, three out of five US employees have experienced or witnessed discrimination based on race, age, gender, or sexual orientation despite the increasing investment in inclusion and diversity. The problem doesn’t just exist in the US alone but also in Germany, UK, and France. The most common trigger of workplace discrimination in the US is gender (42%), age (45%), racism (42%), and sexual orientation (33%).  

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, published that there was a total of 1,889,631 complaints filed to the EEOC from 1997 to 2018. Although 64% were officially dismissed as it found no issue after investigation, around 8.1% reached a settlement. The distribution of discrimination complaints filed were due to color and race (35.7%), sex (28.7%), age (21.3%), national origin (10.0%), religion (3.2%), and equal pay (1.1%). A total of 710,512 complaints have been filed in the said period due to color and race.

Analysts suggest various reasons why the number of workplace discrimination claims continue to increase. One of which is having heightened awareness of what is qualified as illegal behavior.



Unlocking the power of diversity with allyship

Meanwhile, Sheree Atcheson, one of the UK’s most influential women in technology and an international multi-award-winning Diversity and Inclusion Leader for pushing equality, said that allyship is the key to unlock the power of diversity.

Becoming an effective ally at work and beyond requires that your action and words must be in sync. Regularly listening to others around you and adapting to their thinking maybe a challenging journey but certainly worth taking.