As more organizations express their commitment to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, more leaders are discovering the hard way that it can be difficult to translate wishes into action. If being passionate about quashing racial prejudice or gender bias were the only prerequisite for a successful work culture transformation, there would be little need for strategy building. But unfortunately, there is no magic wand that materializes fairness, respect and belonging.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders willing to learn what it takes to become true allies are much better placed to navigate the organizational discomfort that heralds lasting change. They are drawn to allyship by a desire to translate their passion for DEI work into actionable practices, positive frameworks for workplace change, and better language to encourage discussions around topics like racism and gender bias.

In the current employment climate, intentional allyship is an urgently needed leadership skill. Human resources (HR) stakeholders, corporate trainers and C-suite executives alike recognize the connection between creating more inclusive environments and meeting their recruitment and retention goals.

Starting Out: Identify Privilege

To be an ally is to unite oneself with others to promote a common interest. That process can be likened to building a bridge. What is the first step in constructing a bridge? Check your foundation and take stock of your work materials. In the context of allyship, your inevitable starting point — the material you have on hand—is your own social identity and the privileges that come with it.

The word “privilege” often has unnecessary negative connotations. Privilege is not necessarily tied to intention; it exists regardless of intention, good or bad. Most people don’t intentionally exploit others or wantonly capitalize on their social identity. Therefore, it is much more useful to understand privilege as a benefit one gains automatically due to a particular social identity.

No one is 100% advantaged or one hundred percent disadvantaged. For example, a woman of color may have certain disadvantages related to the gender and race aspects of her identity, but she may also have an advantage because she has a university degree. Depending on which part of her identity is centralized, people might make very different assumptions about her.

Some of the automatic workplace privileges employees experience are much more nuanced than blanket categories like “white privilege,” “male privilege” or “economic privilege.” Consider these more complex statements a person might make about their privilege.

  • It is likely that most people in my workplace will look like me.
  • I can feel comfortable and included in office culture and people are comfortable with me.
  • I can presume that if I get loud and animated in a meeting and ask challenging questions, people will assume I’m passionate rather than emotional or aggressive.
  • I can take it for granted that my workplace policy on headdress will encompass my religious beliefs and there will be no need to conform.
  • If I take the back stairs in my building, I will feel safe from sexual violence.

Uncovering your own set of privileges can be an uncomfortable process. It is, however, necessary work for an ally because it is the lens through which you interpret the world and your experience of others.

The Next Step: Uncovering Biases

While many people assume that the purpose of examining one’s biases is to transcend them, that is not a reasonable goal. The human brain is predisposed to creating biases because it receives an onslaught of information from the outside world: about 11 million pieces of data per second. Unfortunately, the conscious mind can only process between 40 to 50 of those pieces of information. Humans form biases and because they have to aggregate information to cut corners. Sometimes we need to make assumptions just to function. A good ally, therefore, proceeds from the standpoint that they will never eradicate all biases from a human mind.

Some of the greatest dangers organizations face today are the unconscious but insidious biases that can taint the hiring process. Three kinds of workplace biases that sneak into the hiring process are:

Confirmation bias: Zeroing in on information about a person that reinforces an initial feeling about them. For example, hiring a white woman for an executive position rather than a woman of color, thinking, “I just knew she would be a great fit!”

Framing bias: Making assumptions about particular data based on general data. For example, most people you have met in executive roles wore clothing in muted colors, so you assume your candidate wearing bright clothing “lacks executive presence.”

Status quo bias:  Assuming that the way the organization “has always done things” is the best way. People often prefer the current state of things over change, which might lead you to think, “We don’t need to change our hiring process, it has always worked just fine.”

The common phrase “culture fit” is one that DEI leaders should be particularly wary of. “Culture fit” has a way of implying “people who are like me” in one way or another. It leads decision-makers to yield to hunches or gut feelings that feel like intuition but are actually favoritism. When hiring and training people, thinking in terms of “culture add” is much more inclusive and beneficial than “culture fit.” It serves as a reminder that the best possible addition to the team may not be the most typical one.

A Good Ally Accesses Their Own Privilege to Benefit Others

Privileges aren’t something we need to be ashamed of. Each person has a unique corner of human experience, and it is OK to share that perspective. In fact, a committed ally can find many ways to put their privileges to work to make a more inclusive, productive, and creative space for those who are facing barriers.

For example, some women and people of color (and especially women of color) find that their ideas are not heard in meetings. If that happens, a well-placed ally can script the conversation back in their direction. Even in meetings where there is no racial or gender difference at all, an extrovert who talks fast and shoots from the hip can dominate an introverted person who needs more time to form their well-considered ideas. An ally can make a conscious commitment to rally behind that person to ensure they are heard.

Another opportunity to exercise good allyship could be an office celebration. Women are often expected to be the social facilitators, food providers and tidy-up crew. Men can volunteer for these duties and send a positive message to others that women shouldn’t be expected to be hostesses while at work because they are assumed to enjoy it more or “be good at it.”

These are just a couple of many ways DEI leaders can implement work culture changes even before they start tackling broader-scale policies and procedures.

Find a Starting Point and Grow from It

There are no quick fixes when it comes to becoming an ally. You just have to understand your departure point and start. Bravely.

Accomplished allies are willing to make mistakes if it leads to new learnings about another person’s perspective. Even in a safe space, conversations about diversity and inclusion can cause discomfort and stress, but like the lactic acid “burn” after a good workout, that is just a sign of growth. All the introspection and self-examination sets the stage for action.