So, your organisation has a detailed DE&I policy. You're committed to diversity recruitment and you work with external trainers on inclusion. But you know that not everyone has a seat at the table in your workplace.
Allyship could be the missing ingredient for real inclusion. We look at what it means for company culture and get an expert steer from Chikere Igbokwe, founder of the Allyship Community & Book Club - a community for allies to connect with other allies.
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What is allyship?
Forbes describes allyship as 'the key to unlocking the power of diversity.' In the context of the workplace, it's about being an advocate for people from marginalised groups, without being a member of that particular group yourself. This is powerful, as it means coworkers can help make diversity and inclusion a reality, translating DE&I principles into action in practical, everyday ways.
It's also vitally important because while inclusion helps with retention, innovation and engagement, bias and exclusion can damage companies and their culture. According to a report from the Centre for Talent Innovation, 33% of employees who perceive bias feel alienated at work, something that's certain to damage morale.
A culture of allyship can help combat this.
"Allies use their power, influence and privilege to advocate for others who are not in those positions," says Chikere. "But it's not just one thing. Allyship is having conversations. Allyship is listening. Allyship is self-education. Allyship is staying engaged."
Chikere has a background as a recruiter in London. Working in this global city – 'a readymade diverse talent pool' – she was puzzled by the lack of women in senior HR positions, not to mention the absence of people of colour in positions of privilege and influence.
"I always wondered why, because many of the global firms I was dealing with had diversity high on the agenda," she recalls. After the murder of George Floyd she decided to use her platform to create change and created the allyship community.
"It's a safe space and a brave space where allies come together, have difficult conversations and learn what it means to be an ally," she explains. Having this type of space and these conversations is key to understanding the concept of allyship and how it can work for organisations.
How to become an ally
Allyship is continuous, not something that's one and done. Deloitte's survey, The Bias Barrier, talks about it as 'a part of everyday behaviours'. But how do you know what to do to be an ally? And where do you make a start? Here are a few pointers.
The allyship journey starts with learning about discrimination and any privilege and power you have. There's a lot of material out there, so you can do this even if your organisation isn't ready to have a conversation about allyship just yet.
"There are so many books, podcasts and TED Talks you can start with," Chikere says. Be aware, though, that this is an ongoing process. "You're constantly learning, relearning, having conversations, making mistakes, dusting yourself off and carrying on. This is a lifelong journey. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
Start with the thing you find most difficult
Talking about and acting on all strands of diversity, equity and inclusion – not just the parts you find comfortable – is vital to achieving real change.
"If we don't embrace talking about all aspects of DE&I, how can we ensure that we are great allies to our coworkers of colour, to our coworkers who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, to our female coworkers?" Chikere asks. She believes that the challenge many organisations now face is looking at the aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion that make them feel uncomfortable.
And organisations need to tackle this reluctance head-on. "When people say to me, 'Where should I start?' I always reply, 'What makes you feel the most uncomfortable?' OK. So that's where you need to start."
Find and create safe spaces
One of the most significant barriers to allyship is the fear of getting it wrong for both organisations and individuals. It's not entirely irrational. Cancel culture is real, and businesses can find themselves in difficulties if initiatives – no matter how well-intentioned, misfire.
But it's essential to overcome this fear for things to change. Creating spaces where employees can have conversations about allyship without repercussions is key to achieving this.
"The only way we can learn is if we come together and we talk and we listen and we have conversations," Chikere explains. "And the only way that can happen is if we do it in a safe space."
While leaders have a major role in driving allyship from the top, they too are vulnerable to the fear that they might make a misstep. The key, Chikere believes, is transparency: "We need our leaders to say: 'I'm human. This is new to me as well. I'm not professing to be an expert and I probably will make a mistake. If we have leaders who are really honest about it, we'll have more change."
Being an active listener means focusing your full attention on the person talking to you rather than being distracted by your thoughts and what's happening around you. It also means being non-judgmental so that you can hear what someone is saying with the minimum of bias.
Being what's referred to as an 'active bystander' is an essential part of being an ally. It means taking action if you see someone subjected to disrespectful or discriminatory behaviour – microaggressions for example, or any form of bias.
It's not always easy. According to the Deloitte study, nearly one in three employees said they ignored bias they witnessed or experienced. Active bystanders will set a clear example to employees, helping to create a culture where others are supported if they speak out.
How to embed allyship into the workplace
As a leader, you have a clear role in championing allyship in your organisation. But to do this, you need to understand the concept and why it's important first. "Leaders need to start with their own education," Chikere says.
Leaders also have a responsibility to create an inclusive environment and culture where everyone feels safe enough to ask questions and have discussions.
Leadership style is crucial here. According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, participative leadership, where managers value employee contributions and openness to new ideas, is essential in enabling diversity to flourish.
It's also important to acknowledge that, as a leader, you don't have all the answers. While listening to your own workforce is vital, leaders shouldn't be afraid of bringing in external experts to help their organisation foster a culture of allyship.
What is performative allyship?
Allyship is highly practical. It's about learning, listening and supporting to bring about change. Performative allyship, on the other hand, is simply about making gestures. We've all seen it in action – the hashtag campaigns that have no real bearing on how an organisation behaves. The Pride flags that come out in June, only for LGBTQ+ employees to be ignored for the rest of the year. And the focus on Black history that lasts for precisely one month. But while this type of showmanship might be grating, how much does it matter?
Chikere firmly believes that performative allyship is dangerous. "You're not doing it to become an active and real ally," she says. "And the key thing is we need more active allies. We need more people in a position of power and influence using their privilege to create change, because that's the only way change will happen."
When allyship is merely performative, it can make it look as if business leaders are not dealing with issues or give a false impression that an organisation is becoming a more inclusive place to work when it's not.
How allyship supports inclusion
Allyship is one of the main drivers of inclusion in the workplace. As Sheree Atcheson writes in Forbes: "An ally is any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole."
As has been widely observed, greater diversity in a workforce doesn't necessarily lead to more inclusion. People from marginalised groups may find themselves over-represented at the bottom and middle of organisations and entirely absent from the C-suite.
Organisational culture may mean that differences are ignored rather than celebrated, leaving people feeling unable to be themselves. Even worse for organisations, lack of inclusion can mean a high attrition rate, with all the negative effects on cost and morale that can bring.
"The problem is people think that recruitment will solve everything," says Chikere. "But when we get diverse talent into our organisations, what next? How do we nurture them? How do we ensure that they feel like they belong? How do we ensure they can be their true, authentic selves?"
These are questions that all organisations are asking. Allyship provides some of the answers. Encouraging leaders and employees alike to educate themselves helps build a culture of solidarity where people will proactively include, mentor, and stand up for each other, creating a better workplace for everyone.
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