One of the most effective ways of creating an equitable workplace is by being a true ally. And allyship has never been more important, Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, tells Thrive. “The data on representation shows that there are still significant disparities between the experiences of Black and Brown people and white people.” In many cases, she says, people of color, particularly women, still don’t get the same opportunities as their white colleagues. “They’re not being promoted to the most senior level positions, and they have lower levels of engagement at work.”
Simply offering support and friendship isn’t enough, says Dr. Morgan Roberts. Meaningful allyship, she explains, entails “being a vocal advocate who fights to level the playing field, and who is willing to go to the mat for people who are suffering inequality and injustice, to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).”
There’s a broad assumption that the the tragic events of 2020 and the global demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd led to substantial positive changes in terms of DEI, says Dr. Morgan Roberts. “Books were published, dollars were invested and people were hired and promoted, but [since then] there has also been sweeping, widespread legislation that has eroded racial equity, women’s rights, and women’s freedom to have access to healthcare.”
Real allyship is about consistent, authentic support, she notes, pointing to a study which found that perceptions about allyship vary among different racial groups, with 80% of white employees viewing themselves as allies to women of color at work, while just 45% of Black women and 55% of Latinas say they have strong allies.
“The problem of racism is institutionalized,” says Dr. Ella Washington, Ph.D., a professor of management at Georgetown University. “It’s a reflection of our larger society: unequal opportunities, unequal access to promotions and jobs,” says Dr. Washington, the author of an upcoming book examining the subject, The Necessary Journey.
Black people are up against “cultural barriers,” says Dr. Washington, who is also CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a firm that specializes in coaching, diversity and inclusion strategy. Many workplaces, she says, “were made for and made by white people and for the most part, Black people do not feel they can be their whole selves or are welcome to embrace their culture while they are at work.” Dr. Washington notes that systemic racism dates back hundreds of years and cannot be fixed overnight. “Black people have been there for the long haul, so we invite our white allies to get into this fight for the long haul.”
“Staying silent is being complicit,” adds Dr. Morgan Roberts. “It means moving away from ‘optical allyship’ (for the sake of, say, your social media presence), and fostering an inclusive environment.”
Here are some actionable steps organizations, leaders, and employees can take to bring about true change at work.
Dr. Morgan Roberts urges everyone to be “alert and vigilant” at work. Specifically, she says that could entail pushing back when somebody’s performance is being evaluated unfairly; for example, if a Black woman is characterized as angry instead of assertive. “Show up and fight against those everyday practices that produce racial inequality in your organization.”
Also: “Be ready to take the heat,” she says. “The heat comes when you start to call out racism, in all its forms, which is often uncomfortable, but as an ally, that’s what we need to do when we observe any injustice.”
Shift your mindset
Our perspective on inclusion in the workplace is crucial, says Dr. Morgan Roberts, “shifting from an ego-driven approach to understanding and addressing the needs of marginalized individuals and groups.” Often, Dr. Morgan Roberts says, people focus on how involvement in a diversity initiative can benefit them, “but the mindset of a true ally means focusing on how you can remedy harm and fight for access to opportunity in your company.”
Commit to learning
“Allyship means being open to lifelong learning,” says Dr. Morgan Roberts, “acknowledging that there’s a whole set of experiences that are painful for many people in your organization that you may have had no awareness about.”
“This is a critical moment to learn more,” says Dr. Morgan Roberts. Don’t let fear of “I don’t know where to begin” keep you from doing the work — start anywhere! If you want to be an ally, then you need humility, to understand more fully the experiences that other people are having and the impact that you and many others are having on those individuals.
A few suggestions: The H.B.R. series “Toward a Racially Just Workplace”; The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh; How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; and “Talking about Race,” a web portal from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Hire, promote, and retain Black employees
It’s up to leaders to examine current policies, says Dr. Washington. “If you look at who has been considered for promotion and who has actually been promoted, and if you don’t see diversity, there’s a problem.” Every leadership team needs to “reflect the diversity of the organization as a whole,” she says, “but also, the organization needs to be a reflection of the community it serves.” For employers, she notes, that means examining recruitment, retention, and promotion policies.
Retention is key, agrees Dr. Morgan Roberts. “In the past two years, many organizations have lost as much Black talent as they’ve hired, because often people don’t feel they have the opportunities to grow.” As a result, “the gains haven’t been equivalent to the hiring patterns. It’s almost like a revolving door.” Right now, she says, employers need to focus intentionally on the retention and development of the talent within their companies.
Create a sense of belonging
Leaders and CEOs “need to investigate why Black employees don’t experience a sense of belonging in the workplace,” says Dr. Washington. They should also be open to feedback.
A great place to start is by supporting people at your workplace who are already organized and doing this work, says Dr. Morgan Roberts, such as employee resource groups. “If you’re serious about being anti racist, “you have to start pulling some things apart, and rebuilding institutions in a way that is more inclusive.” Black employees need to feel psychologically safe. One tactical idea she suggests: making sure there’s built-in time on the agenda at meetings so that every person gets to weigh in and speak. “The dominant voices dominate the conversation, and other voices are excluded. So you have to be intentional about inviting those other voices in,” she says.
“White people can amplify Black voices,” says Dr. Washington, “and make sure there’s diversity in the room when decisions are being made and promotion policies are formed.”
Channel hope for a better future
As for what lies ahead, according to Dr. Morgan Roberts: “True allyship is the only way that we are going to rebuild just, equitable, inclusive organizations. No individual can do it alone. We’re counting on allies. And with strong, dedicated, committed, and courageous allies, we can bring about deep, lasting change.”