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How to be an ally at work

Things to consider

When the world erupted in protest during the summer of 2020 over George Floyd’s murder, many redirected their anger and focused their attention on social justice initiatives. Workplaces put out statements condemning racism and assuring employees they would continue to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Articles and blog posts seemed to pop up everywhere offering advice on how to best support people of color and be an effective ally to other marginalized groups.

A recent report from Pew Research External Site shows that Millennials and Gen Z adults are more likely to have liberal attitudes and be more open to emerging social trends. And, because millennials are on track to make up 75 percent of the workforce in just a few years, promoting allyship at your workplace can have a big impact on your efforts to foster an inclusive culture. According to Deloitte External Site, allies may serve as a missing link for organizations to take the next step in embedding inclusion into the everyday experiences of their employees.

Let’s explore how you can encourage your employees to be allies at work — and why it matters for your business in the long run.

What does it mean to be an ally?

Allies actively support individuals or groups that they don’t directly identify with — especially those involved in an ongoing effort or struggle, like gender identity or racial/ethnic discrimination. This active partnership External Site involves using your power, position or privilege to lift others up, end discriminatory action against marginalized groups, and ensure their colleagues have the same opportunities they do.

Anyone can be an ally. Allies don’t wear a uniform, have a particular skin color, or wear a badge to stand out from their peers. They don’t give themselves a title or demand praise and recognition. However, they do share common characteristics, including self-awareness, empathy, ability to think critically, the ability to look past their own biases, and more.

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What makes someone an ally?

  • Self-awareness
  • Critical thinker
  • Great listener
  • Advocate for marginalized populations
  • Inclusive to all, regardless of background
  • Information seeker
  • Able to uncover their own bias

Your goal — well, if an inclusive and diverse workplace is top of mind, that is — should be to have allies at every level within your organization. It may require a lot of work, continued education, growth, and development, but it’s well worth it. Allyship in the workplace promotes empathy, authenticity and courage — and a workplace culture that prioritizes allyship amongst its employees can drive inclusion efforts forward in a natural, sustainable  way.

Use this guide to help educate your employees on how they can work toward being a better ally in the workplace.

3 steps to being a better ally (plus a bonus tip!)

First and foremost: being an ally in any setting should not be about the person in a position of privilege. That’s right — being an ally isn’t about making yourself look good or feel better. Allyship is more than just talk, it’s about taking intentional steps to recognize and prevent injustice whenever you see it.

Here are several steps you can take to ensure you’re being an effective ally.

Step 1: Educate first, ask questions second.

Whether you want to admit it or not, many of us External Site live in our own little world — blissfully unaware of others’ struggles. That is until a catalyst, like the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter, reveals what was always there the whole time: sexism, racial or ethnic violence, and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or even mental illness.

You may think the easiest way to educate yourself is to ask colleagues from marginalized groups — like people of color, women, or LGBTQ+ individuals — about their experiences with inequality and injustice. This is often seen as taking the easy way out and burdens your colleagues with emotional and cognitive labor.

Instead, take the time to read, listen, watch and gain a deeper understanding first. When you do finally ask questions, you should ask their permission. If they agree to share, approach the conversation with a learning mindset.

Looking for resources to get started? Try these:

Step 2: Check your privilege.

In order to be a good ally, you need to be honest with yourself about your privilege. While all individuals face hardships, challenges, and adversity, it's important to recognize External Site how age, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical and mental abilities can either provide a leg up or put someone at a distinct disadvantage due to implicit bias External Site and discrimination. 

This can be a painful realization for some, in particular when it comes to acknowledging that factors you don’t have control over and you haven’t earned through hard work External Site have made your life easier, while at the same time have made others’ lives harder.

When you come from a position of privilege, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re the only one who can fix things when addressing racism, diversity and inclusion. Make sure to admit that you don’t have all the answers and seek out what you need to know, how you can help, and strategize with everyone on what you can do together to create change.

Step 3: Speak up.

Now that you’ve educated yourself and have a better understanding of how your privilege has quietly benefitted your life and career, it’s time to speak up and act. (We didn’t say this was going to be easy!)

  1. Be on the lookout for racist or sexist behavior in your workplace and shut it down when you see it happen. Don’t wait for other people — especially those who are being targeted — to react. Make it known that you understand what is and isn’t acceptable in an inclusive work environment, and that you will not tolerate it as an ally.
  2. Watch out for gaslighting phrases that are used to invalidate someone’s experience. For example, you may hear excuses like, “you know he didn’t mean it like that,” “you’re really blowing this out of proportion,” “you need to be less sensitive,” and “it was just a joke!”
  3. Speak up even if the target of the conversation isn’t in the room. Remember: As an ally, you’re helping to create an inclusive culture that doesn't tolerate comments at others' expense.
  4. Don’t be afraid to lose a workplace friendship over your allyship. It’s a much bigger movement than just one or two people.
  5. Speaking up doesn’t have to be confrontational — if you don’t feel there are enough diverse voices in a meeting (hint: this happens when everyone present looks like you), ask if the group can get perspectives from specific people to include their work and expertise. If you’re in a leadership role, step out of the spotlight and let someone else lead the meeting or go to a high-visibility event in your place.

Bonus tip: Never assume you are an ally

Being an ally is not a label you give yourself — it is earned only through your non-performative actions. By saying you are trying to be an ally or you’re working on being an ally, you’re letting your colleagues know that you’re willing to do the work and keep learning as you go. Committing to allyship is a lifelong process, not a trend you follow because it’s popular.

Why diversity and inclusion are a priority for the millennial workforce

A recent survey from Glassdoor External Site revealed that 76 percent of employees and job seekers prioritize a diverse workforce when considering job offers or evaluating their current company — and these numbers are even higher for Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ employees.

Though many organizations have made commitments to further diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, millennials want more than just talk — and they turn to current employees at a company for answers first. The survey showed 66 percent of employees and job seekers trust employees the most when it comes to understanding what diversity and inclusion really look like at a company, compared to just 19 percent who trust senior leaders, 9 percent who trust the company’s website, and 6 percent who trust recruiters.

When it comes to prioritizing a diverse workforce, millennials may be on to something. According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey External Site, the majority of millennial employees believe that having both a diverse senior management team and a diverse organization helps attract and retain top talent, provides a stimulating and motivating work environment, has a positive impact on wider society, and makes a company more profitable External Site.  

Want to learn more about your millennial employees?

Millennials currently make up 50 percent of your workforce, and by 2025, they will make up 75 percent of your employee population. This generation comes into the workplace with a desire to succeed and make a lasting impact, but they are plagued with health conditions.

Notably, millennials with a behavioral health condition (depression, anxiety, hyperactivity) are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a chronic physical condition such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery disease.

The bottom line: when your employees aren’t healthy, health care costs will continue to rise, and productivity will decrease.

When you download your free copy of the Millennials In Your Workplace e-book opens in new window, you can take advantage of extensive research, in-house data and subject matter expertise to help create sustainable, long-term changes in your workplace today.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield account representative or email us at Send Email.