How Leaders Can Promote Allyship in the Workplace

Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
February 15, 2022

In 2021, Dictionary.com named “allyship” its word of the year beating out popular and controversial words like burnout, critical race theory and vaccine. This new word of the year was only added to Dictionary.com sometime in 2021 - a distinctive first for a new word to be given the annual title.

Allyship, as defined by Dictionary.com, is the act of a person who advocates for a marginalized group but is not a part of that group. Since the racial uprisings of 2020, there’s been a special emphasis placed on the importance of allyship in the workplace, and its impact on underrepresented groups. Many organizations are starting to recognize its power and importance in fostering an inclusive workplace and culture; even LeanIn has a training program called Allyship at Work to empower employees to take meaningful action and support inclusion.

Workers are increasingly understanding the importance of acting as allies to marginalized colleagues, but it’s up to people leaders, HR leaders and executives to create corporate cultures that teach and reward allyship. And there’s no better time to do that than Black History Month.

If your organization is looking for ideas on how to recognize Black History Month and support Black employees all year, download our report, How Black History Month Can be a Catalyst to Year-Long Inclusive Action.


What does allyship look like at work?

Allyship in the workplace means advocating for someone whose identity is not the same as yours. This can come in big and small gestures, from prompting someone to speak in a meeting after they’ve been ignored or championing a colleague for a promotion. It’s meant to make workplaces more supportive, welcoming spaces for people who have historically been left out.

“The hard work is putting your hand up and asking for change,” said Mark Harrison of the Black Talent Initiative. “It’s not about you, it’s about stopping racism. Full stop.”

Certain individuals, especially white people, have privilege that affords them opportunities people of color do not get in the workplace. For example, standards of professionalism often rely on white, Western social norms. Over the past decades, workplaces have asked Black women to change their hair from braids or locs for the sake of so-called professionalism.  

Allyship seeks to turn this dynamic on its head and have the privileged individual use their power for the good of their underrepresented coworker. In this example, that would look like advocating or taking charge of drafting inclusive employee standards for dress and appearance.

“While workplace allies can be any race, age, gender identity, function, or level, they typically have some sort of status that enables their allyship actions to be particularly sticky,” according to experts at DDI, a global leadership development organization.

For example, DDI notes that men can be great allies to women or non-binary people, senior leaders can be allies to associate-level coworkers, and white employees can be allies to people of color.

Why it’s important to emphasize allyship during Black History Month

Black History Month is about uplifting Black voices. It’s also a time to reflect on the current and historical mistreatment of Black people and discuss ways non-Black employees can support them. And there is a real need for support. One in four Black employees reported being discriminated against at work in 2020.  31% of Black workers younger than 40 years old say they face discrimination and experience more microaggressions in the workplace, which is almost twice that of older Black workers. Research from Gallup shows “that employees are less likely to feel discriminated against at work if they have great managers who build a culture of high engagement and respect.” Allyship is a critical way to build this trust with managers and colleagues alike.

But it’s important for companies to avoid performative allyship, which gives the appearance of advocating for Black people but doesn’t actually do any good. Organizations can’t condemn police killings of Black individuals then give large donations to police unions. Similarly, managers can’t say they want to hire more Black people for senior roles then fill those roles with only white colleagues.

Black employees from across industries told Fortune that they’re keenly familiar with such optical allyship. According to the article, “They say their companies speak out in support of racial equality but don’t hire Black executives or equally pay Black employees, don’t listen to their concerns regarding discrimination, or were completely silent about racism up until [2020].”

Promote and reward allyship in the workplace

Organization leaders must prioritize allyship by putting into place programs and policies to foster and reward it in their workplaces. Mentorship, training, top-down organizational reviews, inclusive policies and diversity, equity and inclusion training are all ways to teach workers when, how, and why to advocate for one another.

“Senior leaders set the tone for inclusion at a given company, and they have significant power to make a change,” says Michelle Thompson-Dolberry, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at MFS Investment Management.

A basic structure companies can follow to build an environment that supports allyship is the ABC model (as described by Ali Shalfrooshan, Head of International Assessment R&D at PSI Talent Measurement):

  • A is for acknowledge: to study and learn about the challenges of underrepresented groups. It should give the ally a sufficient understanding of what’s gone wrong and what needs to change.
  • B is for building: to move from understanding toward creating an inclusive environment, which comes in the form of relationship building, active listening, and gathering diverse perspectives.
  • C is for champion: to start acting on the research and perspectives an ally has gathered. The ally is actively looking for ways to make change through formal and informal channels.

This framework allows leaders to create a path to allyship, starting with education. Here are additional ideas on a company-wide level that organizations can implement to act as an ally to minority employees:

  • Create formal mentorship programs – Mentorship is a key way to democratize access to knowledge and opportunities within a company. Mentorship programs can connect underrepresented employees to mentors, managers and peers to help them succeed. Ten Thousand Coffees, can help you create a mentorship program for your workplace that elevates underrepresented groups.
  • Conduct diversity training – A way to deepen individual and company-wide commitments using allyship is through ongoing education. Diversity training teaches people how to become allies and focuses on the perspectives of marginalized coworkers.
  • Evaluate organizational structures – Your organization likely has delineated pathways for role changes, raises, and promotions. Work with the HR team to review these and remove any roadblocks that might exist for people of color to grow.

Allyship can transform a workplace

It’s imperative organizations look inward and change the racist and nepotistic norms of the past. Fostering a culture that values and encourages allyship is one way to do this. If your organization is looking to make a cultural change and better support Black employees, download our report, How Black History Month Can be a Catalyst to Year-Long Inclusive Action to learn more.

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How Leaders Can Promote Allyship in the Workplace

In 2021, Dictionary.com named “allyship” its word of the year beating out popular and controversial words like burnout, critical race theory and vaccine. This new word of the year was only added to Dictionary.com sometime in 2021 - a distinctive first for a new word to be given the annual title.

Allyship, as defined by Dictionary.com, is the act of a person who advocates for a marginalized group but is not a part of that group. Since the racial uprisings of 2020, there’s been a special emphasis placed on the importance of allyship in the workplace, and its impact on underrepresented groups. Many organizations are starting to recognize its power and importance in fostering an inclusive workplace and culture; even LeanIn has a training program called Allyship at Work to empower employees to take meaningful action and support inclusion.

Workers are increasingly understanding the importance of acting as allies to marginalized colleagues, but it’s up to people leaders, HR leaders and executives to create corporate cultures that teach and reward allyship. And there’s no better time to do that than Black History Month.

If your organization is looking for ideas on how to recognize Black History Month and support Black employees all year, download our report, How Black History Month Can be a Catalyst to Year-Long Inclusive Action.


What does allyship look like at work?

Allyship in the workplace means advocating for someone whose identity is not the same as yours. This can come in big and small gestures, from prompting someone to speak in a meeting after they’ve been ignored or championing a colleague for a promotion. It’s meant to make workplaces more supportive, welcoming spaces for people who have historically been left out.

“The hard work is putting your hand up and asking for change,” said Mark Harrison of the Black Talent Initiative. “It’s not about you, it’s about stopping racism. Full stop.”

Certain individuals, especially white people, have privilege that affords them opportunities people of color do not get in the workplace. For example, standards of professionalism often rely on white, Western social norms. Over the past decades, workplaces have asked Black women to change their hair from braids or locs for the sake of so-called professionalism.  

Allyship seeks to turn this dynamic on its head and have the privileged individual use their power for the good of their underrepresented coworker. In this example, that would look like advocating or taking charge of drafting inclusive employee standards for dress and appearance.

“While workplace allies can be any race, age, gender identity, function, or level, they typically have some sort of status that enables their allyship actions to be particularly sticky,” according to experts at DDI, a global leadership development organization.

For example, DDI notes that men can be great allies to women or non-binary people, senior leaders can be allies to associate-level coworkers, and white employees can be allies to people of color.

Why it’s important to emphasize allyship during Black History Month

Black History Month is about uplifting Black voices. It’s also a time to reflect on the current and historical mistreatment of Black people and discuss ways non-Black employees can support them. And there is a real need for support. One in four Black employees reported being discriminated against at work in 2020.  31% of Black workers younger than 40 years old say they face discrimination and experience more microaggressions in the workplace, which is almost twice that of older Black workers. Research from Gallup shows “that employees are less likely to feel discriminated against at work if they have great managers who build a culture of high engagement and respect.” Allyship is a critical way to build this trust with managers and colleagues alike.

But it’s important for companies to avoid performative allyship, which gives the appearance of advocating for Black people but doesn’t actually do any good. Organizations can’t condemn police killings of Black individuals then give large donations to police unions. Similarly, managers can’t say they want to hire more Black people for senior roles then fill those roles with only white colleagues.

Black employees from across industries told Fortune that they’re keenly familiar with such optical allyship. According to the article, “They say their companies speak out in support of racial equality but don’t hire Black executives or equally pay Black employees, don’t listen to their concerns regarding discrimination, or were completely silent about racism up until [2020].”

Promote and reward allyship in the workplace

Organization leaders must prioritize allyship by putting into place programs and policies to foster and reward it in their workplaces. Mentorship, training, top-down organizational reviews, inclusive policies and diversity, equity and inclusion training are all ways to teach workers when, how, and why to advocate for one another.

“Senior leaders set the tone for inclusion at a given company, and they have significant power to make a change,” says Michelle Thompson-Dolberry, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at MFS Investment Management.

A basic structure companies can follow to build an environment that supports allyship is the ABC model (as described by Ali Shalfrooshan, Head of International Assessment R&D at PSI Talent Measurement):

  • A is for acknowledge: to study and learn about the challenges of underrepresented groups. It should give the ally a sufficient understanding of what’s gone wrong and what needs to change.
  • B is for building: to move from understanding toward creating an inclusive environment, which comes in the form of relationship building, active listening, and gathering diverse perspectives.
  • C is for champion: to start acting on the research and perspectives an ally has gathered. The ally is actively looking for ways to make change through formal and informal channels.

This framework allows leaders to create a path to allyship, starting with education. Here are additional ideas on a company-wide level that organizations can implement to act as an ally to minority employees:

  • Create formal mentorship programs – Mentorship is a key way to democratize access to knowledge and opportunities within a company. Mentorship programs can connect underrepresented employees to mentors, managers and peers to help them succeed. Ten Thousand Coffees, can help you create a mentorship program for your workplace that elevates underrepresented groups.
  • Conduct diversity training – A way to deepen individual and company-wide commitments using allyship is through ongoing education. Diversity training teaches people how to become allies and focuses on the perspectives of marginalized coworkers.
  • Evaluate organizational structures – Your organization likely has delineated pathways for role changes, raises, and promotions. Work with the HR team to review these and remove any roadblocks that might exist for people of color to grow.

Allyship can transform a workplace

It’s imperative organizations look inward and change the racist and nepotistic norms of the past. Fostering a culture that values and encourages allyship is one way to do this. If your organization is looking to make a cultural change and better support Black employees, download our report, How Black History Month Can be a Catalyst to Year-Long Inclusive Action to learn more.

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