Fighting discrimination: how to be an ally and what it means

To combat unfair treatment at work, it’s crucial that every employee understands the best way to speak up – and knows that they will be supported if they do. These tips can help organisations and individuals towards effective allyship by avoiding common mistakes

You often hear the word ‘allyship’ in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

It usually signals the intention to support and sponsor other people’s experiences, and to make it clear that we stand with them. But the role of an ally is often misunderstood, unsupported and can feel directionless. And when they’re trying to support colleagues, individuals and organisations make common mistakes that could be avoided. 

While I provide tailored support to an organisation based on its culture, size and approach to allyship, here are some tips for individuals and organisations towards effective allyship.

What are ‘microaggressions’? 

An incredibly frequent, and incredibly rude, example of a microaggression occurs when I’m talking to managers about hiring the best talent. 

When I’m challenging them on what truly constitutes ‘the best’, I often come up against comments such as, “I’m not just going to give someone a job because they are Black, working class, disabled, or female.”

I am an inclusive recruitment specialist, yes, and my work has had a focus on the benefits of diversity. But I have never suggested that organisations should hire people based on either their identity or their protected characteristics. I ask hiring managers to consider that the best talent can come from several backgrounds and might have many intersections. 

If I suggest this and you assume that you can only increase the diversity of your workforce by hiring which is based on identity, regardless of skill, it suggests you don’t see talent from different backgrounds as being on a level playing field with those types of people you usually hire. You think less of them. This is a microaggression.

How to practise allyship as an individual 

It’s important to recognise that what allyship means for one person might not be the same for another. 

If I’m experiencing microaggressions during a board meeting and I’m aware there is a visible and named ally present, I might like them to speak up and say something. For me, a good display of allyship in this case, might be: “What you’re saying is inappropriate, makes me feel uncomfortable and doesn’t align with the values of our organisation.”

Another person might prefer if you didn’t speak up at the time and instead took the offender aside following the meeting. In private, acting as an ally, you could then discuss what you witnessed and how you feel about it. Someone else might prefer an educational email sent around that isn’t directed at anyone but is a reminder of the culture the organisation is trying to create. Someone else might not want any of these things. 

The best first step, then, is to recognise that it’s important to identify what allyship looks like to your colleagues. It might be as simple as asking them directly or establishing via employee resource groups what the position and approaches might be.

You might notice that in each of these responses when allies speak, they speak on their own behalf – when they speak of discomfort, that discomfort is their own. This is important. If you’re supporting your disabled colleague by responding to ableist comments, speak up on your own account. 

Do not say, “On behalf of colleague X, who is disabled (and present) I’d like to say that this is inappropriate, and an apology is owed.”

While the intention is positive actions are often judged, and this isn’t a grandstanding exercise. It should be a genuine attempt to challenge behaviours that don’t align with your values or those of your organisation, so do so because it’s important to you. 

Being an ally also isn’t about only showing up when those affected are present. In some ways, allyship is most impactful when those targeted or implicated are not present, when it’s of little gain to you personally. 

Don’t assume that you know what support looks like. A fundamental error that people often make is to prescribe the cure for someone’s challenges – rather than simply asking them what support they require. 

“So, how do we ask?” you might be wondering.

Depending on your relationship with a particular individual, you could ask them directly. You can also lean on employee resource groups by going along to their meetings or emailing members or the chair for advice. 

And if your organisation doesn’t have employee resource groups, then contact professional diversity and inclusion practitioners directly yourself. There are also many audiobooks, podcasts and literature on the subject offering helpful support, information and guidance.

How to practise effective allyship in an organisation 

A common mistake that leaders make is not setting out what allyship looks and feels like in the organisation. But it is crucial to set out expectations about calling out behaviours that are not aligned with company culture. And what does ‘calling out’ mean, in practical terms? Does it mean, ‘I can raise my voice passionately when I’m aggrieved by a consistent microaggression,’ or does it mean, ‘I flag the behaviour to a senior ally, who then deals with the situation’? Be clear about the universal expectations of inclusive behaviour and the consequences for repeat offenders of microaggressions and excluding behaviours. Otherwise, allyship becomes difficult to manage and implement.

My consultancy runs a workshop on microaggressions and allyship and it’s one of our most powerful educational workshops. Actors role play common microaggressions, which helps people to identify – and crucially, to understand – them. Those who attend these workshops are often surprised to learn that comments that they make regularly could be considered microaggressions. Not only that, but for the recipient of those ‘micro’-aggressions these actions can often feel ‘macro’ because they occur repetitively and daily.

What often comes up from these workshops is that leaders are entirely unaware of the number of microaggressions their people experience. They are also not visible to allies, meaning that even those who would like to be an ally wonder if they will be supported if they speak up.

This is also crucial. You can’t encourage a culture of allyship and isolate allies when they step up. As a leader, you need to make it clear to the organisation – however big or small it is – that you will be supporting your allies and their actions to intervene in inequitable experiences.

Allyship and inclusion 

Allyship might seem complex but it can be made simple with clarity. It requires an openness and understanding that you – as an ally – might make mistakes but will always be open to learning from them.

Remember, everyone needs an ally, and it’s rarely true that one size fits all. You don’t have to come from an underrepresented group to have experiences that you’d appreciate support with. 

Inclusion starts with an ‘I’ so we should always be thinking about ‘I’ behaviours. What can I do? How can I articulate the support I need as an ally or otherwise? And how can I ensure my leaders know what I need from them on both fronts?