How To Be An Ally At Work: A Column On Co-Operation During Black History Month

It’s a question we’d all like to know the answer to: how can I become a better person? Or, at least, a better people person?

Whether at work, home or in social environments, we all have a deep longing to help others - both to play our part in helping the world to become a better place, and partially because, well, people need our help.

In the workplace, inequality has been rife for many centuries. The modern-day optimist may be thankful that the days of segregation, prejudice, and the Civil Rights Movement are far behind us. And indeed, they are. But it’s no question that some remnants of our dismal and discriminatory past remain.

During Black History Month, especially, the question that we should all be asking is how can we become a better ally at work not only to our colleagues and employers, but particularly to those of color that may find themselves working in predominantly white environments.

What is a Workplace Ally?

In the context of an ethnically imbalanced work environment, an ally may be an individual from a majority group that seeks to make employment a more pleasant experience for those in minority groups.

In other words, an ally might be a white employee that goes out of her way to make a colored person feel more comfortable at work - or a middle white male that helps his female friend to fit in at the office.

An ally is any person that’s interested in improving outcomes and circumstances for stigmatized individuals - those who wish to advocate for the rights of others within a workplace context.

It doesn’t matter if you aren’t doing that right now. If you care about making your working environment fair and balanced for everyone involved, you can become a workplace ally.

Educate Yourself

When you’re in a majority group, it’s easy to be blind to incidents of prejudice or bias - largely because it probably isn’t directly affecting you. The first step, therefore, towards helping to minimize workplace bias is to learn how stigma operates: how they benefit the majority and hinder the minority.

Educating yourself on how the minority groups in your workplace feel can be as simple as expressing a little empathy. Put yourself into their shoes. See things through their eyes.

And if that isn’t enough, sit down and talk with them - less like Skeeter from The Help and more like a friend that just wants to check up and see how you’re doing.

Dale Carnegie advocates empathy and its transformative power in many of his books and speeches. As he writes,

"If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own."

This statement rings true in every walk of life. Simply learning to empathize with those that we meet can work wonders on their wellbeing and deepen our relationship with them.

Try it at work. Show those minority groups that you understand, simply by making an effort to understand.

Know When it’s Appropriate to Take Action

Getting to know people from minority groups in your workplace could be revelatory in many different ways. You may be shocked to have unearthed cases of mistreatment that went completely under your radar, or you may be relieved to find that, actually, employers have matured since the ‘60s and things are going swell.

If the former, it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to take action.

A good ally doesn’t hide in the shadows and do nothing whilst their friends are being discriminated against. They show support through their actions.

Calling people out on their bad behavior isn’t always a terrible idea, but calling your boss a racist will probably land you in some pretty deep crap. So what do you do?

You can show support through your actions. These don’t have to be bold, outward displays of acceptance, but rather subtle actions that let the right people know that you get it.

Making an effort to initiate conversation, asking a friend how they are, replying to their messages on Slack - none of these things are going to cause you problems, but could mean the world to the right person.

On Companionship

Companionship, on any level, is about showing a person that you care. It’s about saying ‘hey, your happiness is important to me and I want you to know it.’

In the workplace, there’ll always be those ignorant people that refuse to accept others’ differences. There’ll be racists, homophobes, sexists, both subtle and blatant.

Even if we, ourselves, make a conscious effort to include all people - not everybody does. While we can’t directly change another person’s behavior, we can influence it.

We can make a positive impact on the lives of minority groups simply by being a good ally to them; by including them in our social circle, engaging in conversation, and most importantly, by treating them like a friend.

And, like the butterfly that flaps its wings in one hemisphere and causes a hurricane in the other, our small, seemingly insignificant actions may eventually cascade to transform our workplace into a more positive environment: a place of acceptance - for everyone.