Are You a Foe or an Ally for Diversity?

Why ally networks are imperative to positive change toward diversity in the workplace

Diversity training programs generally fail to change workplace behaviors because they are not intentional and do not include allies.  Despite an average of $10B in spending annually in the US on diversity training, there is stagnant progress at best in most organizations, even those with the best of intentions.

In my research for my books on diversity and inclusion, Pivot Point, ONE, and Lead Like an Ally, I have come to learn that ally networks are crucial for positive change.  A one-and-done training program or flavor of the month employee resource group meeting will not drive systemic behavior change.  It takes all voices in the conversation, especially those with privilege.

What does it take to be an ally?

Allies are familiar with the diversity dictionary

Understanding diversity requires a different lens to unsee the systems we accept to be “normal,” and adapt our systems to be more inclusive.  Diversity and inclusion cannot happen within the systems we have today.

Allies get familiar with the unfamiliar.  They are willing to learn words and incorporate them into their vocabulary to help others.  Some terms to know (be sure to download the full list of 20 terms here):

  • Diversity: Different groups of people (i.e. gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, abilities)
  • Inclusion: A sense of belonging for diverse groups of people
  • Majority group: The group that generally holds the largest amount of power in society and in workplaces (i.e. white, straight, male, cisgender, able-bodied)
  • Underrepresented groups: The groups that fall outside of the majority group by one or more factors (non-white, LGBTQ+, female, gender non-binary, disabled)
  • Intersectionality: The intersection of more than one marker of diversity (i.e. race + gender, disabled + gay)
  • Privilege: The advantages one has over others based on their associations with the majority group (i.e. white, straight, male, cisgender, able-bodied)
  • Ally: One that leverages their privilege to help others that are underrepresented (i.e. mentor, sponsor, advocate, coach, challenger)

Allies mentor and sponsor those that are different than themselves

High potential women and people of color are often overtasked to mentor and sponsor those that are “like” them.  It is as if they are responsible for developing all the other diverse talent because they have had success.  Men and white people are equally qualified to mentor women and people of color.  Allies resist their affinity bias to mentor and sponsor those who look like them and act like them.  We learn from people who are different from us, whether it is a different gender, race, sexual orientation, age, or ability.

This is important because men are 54% more likely to have sponsors that help them get to the next level in the organization.  Allies ensure equal access to sponsors. If men are the primary recipients of talent review discussions, you may have this problem. Allies open up the sponsoring swim lanes to women and call leaders out if they are recommending or talking only about male or white talent.

Allies participate in Employee Resource Groups 

These are professional networking and professional development groups that provide brave spaces for psychological safety. While it is important for underrepresented people to have a safe place to share their stories and to be heard with people like them, it is also critical to have times to invite allies to participate and listen and learn.

As humans, we seek safe environments with people who look and think like us, and having employee resource groups offer a safe place for those underrepresented at your organization, and make sure allies feel welcome.  Invite them personally to events, and maintain a safe place for women only for some events as needed.

As an ally, show up and listen.  You will walk away a better human.

Allies get the real reasons why people leave

Women and people of color exit organizations on average 2-3 times the rate of their white male colleagues.  Why?  They do not feel as they belong.  Allies pay attention to code words in exit interviews and conduct solid exit interviews asking open-ended questions, like “If you could change anything at our organization, what would you recommend?” or “What are the things that kept you up at night as an employee here?”

Real questions get real answers. It is also important to protect the anonymity of those interviewed to ensure there is no retaliation or ill consequences when sharing sensitive information. If there is any issue with individual leaders, it needs to be addressed immediately. Pay attention to which managers are losing good employees and hold them accountable for engaging their employees more.

Allies have comfort with discomfort

Instead of avoiding the difficult topic of diversity and inclusion, allies lean into the dialogue and stay open to input.  We learn when we are truly uncomfortable.  That means leading a culture of challenging with care and engaging the majority group in the conversation.  If you have privilege, the good news is you can leverage it to help others.  While it may feel uncomfortable at first, allies ask questions and test their ideas, open to feedback and refraining from defensiveness.  It is okay to make mistakes – no one is a perfect ally.

Because if we are waiting for the majority group to be perfect, we will wait forever.  Meet our allies where they are at.

We all will be stronger for it. 

Like this content?  Then, you will love my new book Lead Like an Ally.  Click on the link to order your copy, watch complimentary videos, and begin your ally journey.  A great place to start is by taking my free online assessment and printing my free inclusive leader checklist to kick start efforts at your organization.