If you heard someone gossiping about your friend, would you say something? What if — instead of your friend — it was your coworker? Or a stranger on the bus? Beyond gossip, do you stand up for folks from marginalized groups when people are actively discriminating against them, either through assumptions or actions? Do you amplify the voices we hear the least?
A person who answers “yes” to these questions is an ally. Allies are individuals who fight discrimination, amplify marginalized voices, and promote equity within their communities and workplaces. Allies serve as essential mechanisms to fight systemic injustice through the power they hold from their various positions of privilege — race, gender, socioeconomic status, or other factors.
Most of us would like to be good allies to those around us. The problem is that most of us don’t instinctively know how. We are nervous we’ll say the wrong thing or to speak up in awkward situations. We may not want to rock the boat at work by pointing out when our coworkers are being offensive or making inappropriate jokes — especially when the rest of the team is laughing, too!
But if we want to make our communities and workplaces better places for all people to succeed and be heard, those of us with the most privilege need to work to become the best allies we can be.
Thankfully, there are clear steps we can take to get started. When we decide to become an ally for folks in the workplace, we need to commit to four key actions:
- Become a lifelong learner
- Correct false hiring perceptions
- Avoid deciding for others
- Stand up for those not in the room
While this list is not exhaustive, it’s a good jumping off point for your journey to becoming a great and impactful ally.
Become a lifelong learner
While most of us don’t like to admit it, it’s impossible for us to know everything. We might know some things well — like how to ride a bike or how to make a pivot table in Excel — but we still will fall short when it comes to knowing other people’s lived experiences. However, part of being a good ally is understanding the challenges those from marginalized groups face and the systems of privilege and inequality we all live within. So, to gain that understanding, we need to commit to learning as much as we can.
The best way we can learn to be allies is by centering diverse voices in our reading and educational materials, attending specific events that focus on the experiences of marginalized groups, and — most importantly — being an active listener.
When folks tell you their experiences, it’s not your role as an ally to judge their authenticity. Allies need to admit that we might not know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and be committed to learning and understanding. We can’t learn any of this overnight, either. It’ll take time and dedication, but it’s all part of the allyship process.
It’s important to remember that allies are people and people make mistakes. But as an ally, it’s crucial to see the learning opportunity when you’ve made a mistake — especially if it’s been pointed out to you by someone else. It can feel uncomfortable, and you might even feel defensive, but feedback is a crucial part of becoming a stronger ally. We also can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t know or admit that we made them!
Correct false hiring perceptions
It’s incumbent upon allies to speak up and address whatever is being said when they hear a colleague say something offensive (we’ll talk about this more in a later section). It’s also the ally’s role to correct false perceptions that may come up when people talk about hiring.
Companies across the technology industry — including VMware — are eager to increase the number of new hires who are women and are from diverse backgrounds. The research supports this push: companies with diverse workforces are more innovative, profitable, and have stronger connections to their customers.
At VMware and in the Office of the CTO (OCTO), we work hard to ensure that our hiring processes are equitable and inclusive. For instance, VMware provides abundant resources and training to their hiring managers and interviewers to make sure everyone is prepared when entering an interview. They also work hard to eliminate bias throughout the entire process by prepping their recruiters to listen for bias during debriefing and restricting interviewers from seeing any interview feedback before they submit their own.
Within OCTO, we adhere to VMware’s interviewing standards, as well as set OCTO-specific policies around hiring accountability and equity with regular oversight and cross-team review. We also provide additional resources to our hiring teams, such as regular hiring-focused workshops, dedicated office hours with Talent Acquisition, and tools, such as our OCTO-specific interview question database.
Unfortunately, we still sometimes hear people say someone was hired only because of their gender, race, or another personal factor, rather than because of their previous experience or the value they bring to the role. When you hear comments like this, there are two steps you can take. First, correct the person or people spreading these misconceptions. At VMware, gender, race, or other factors do not influence hiring decisions (and we hope it’s the same where you work), so comments like these are particularly harmful to the sense of inclusion and belonging on our teams. Second, you can help the new hire build confidence. Starting at a new company is daunting — and even more so if you hear someone say you don’t deserve to be there!
If a new hire does overhear a comment like the above, here’s how you can help. Explain why you believe they were hired — especially if they had a unique career journey or came from another industry. Being a good ally can make a new colleague feel welcome and a part of the team, even if you’re not their manager.
Avoid making decisions for others
I’ve said it before (see above!) and I’ll say it again — allies make mistakes. With this in mind, we need to be aware of a typically unintentional, but still harmful, thing many of us do: making decisions for other people.
Strangely, it often happens when we’re trying our hardest to be considerate. Instead of simply asking someone their preference, we often assume we know what they want to do. Or, to avoid making someone feel awkward or offended, we don’t ask someone’s opinion and assume we know it — which inevitably leads to more awkwardness!
Here’s an example that many women with children or family caregiving responsibilities may relate to. A woman — let’s call her Jane — has had a child. Jane’s boss doesn’t nominate her for a new project with a lot of travel because they assume Jane won’t want to leave her family. Jane’s career opportunities are then limited because she was not involved with the high-profile project, delaying a possible promotion and future income potential. Jane was never asked if she didn’t want to travel; her boss just assumed.
To be good allies, we need to stop assuming and start asking. It is not the role of an ally to decide what is in the best interest of another person. It’s better to invite that person to the conversation so they are able to decide for themselves.
So, the next time you’re tempted to decide something for the good of someone else, stop and ask them what they would like to do. The answer might surprise you!
Stand up for those not in the room
As we’ve mentioned, it’s important for allies to show up and be supportive in spaces with folks from diverse groups, such as your company’s LGBTQ employees’ and allies’ organizations or local advocacy groups for people with disabilities and their allies. However, it’s even more important to show your allyship when people from diverse groups are not in the room.
If we are in a group setting with only people who look like us or come from a similar background, we might hear disparaging comments or jokes about others that would not be voiced if the group in the room was more diverse. Often, folks won’t say anything to correct these comments; they don’t want to embarrass the person who said it or be viewed differently by the group. However, this is the exact setting where someone can exercise their allyship. The person or group of people who were the subjects of the offensive comments are not there to defend themselves. Behavior like this — although frequent and, sadly, unsurprising — should not be tolerated. Especially not in the workplace.
Another way to discourage this behavior is to make a conscious effort to (and influence others to) always include a diverse group in meetings where decisions are being made and in social events. If someone is not invited to a team happy hour or group social activity, a good ally will they are invited every time.
Sometimes, speaking up can make things awkward between coworkers or even harm professional relationships. If an ally’s manager is complicit with the inappropriate behavior, the ally might fear their career could be impacted by saying something. However, as mentioned at the very beginning of this post, good allies speak out against injustice and inequity wherever they see it. We must have courage in these situations to be the advocate for others — even if it means telling a leader directly to their face that their joke was offensive.
Allyship is a lifelong journey for everyone and it’s never too late to get started. By committing to these four actions, you can become a strong ally that supports, listens to, and advocates for others. In the process, you’ll be setting an example for those around you, as well.