Allyship in the Workplace: What Promoting Racial Equity and Inclusivity Really Requires

Two experts share actionable steps organizations can take to bring about true change in the workplace.

REDPIXEL.PL / Shutterstock
REDPIXEL.PL / Shutterstock

The brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was a long overdue wake-up call; it has galvanized a movement to end systemic racism. Bringing about real change in society means we must also address issues in the workplace.

“For years, people have been choosing to look the other way,” Ella Washington, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and professor of management at Georgetown University, tells Thrive. “What does that say about us as a society — that something has to be caught on camera in order for us to do something about it?”

Floyd’s death, along with the tragic killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — and the global demonstrations that followed — mark a pivotal moment in our history. After countless senseless killings of Black people over the years, there’s finally “an awareness and more willingness to accept that change is urgent,” says Washington, who is also CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a consulting firm that provides executive coaching, diversity and inclusion strategy, and training for organizations. “The problem of racism in the workplace is institutionalized,” she says. “It’s a reflection of our larger society: unequal opportunities, unequal access to promotions, and unequal access to jobs.”  

Black people are up against “cultural barriers in the workplace,” says Washington. Many workplaces “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. It’s not everyone— some companies are better than others,” she says.

Racism “is ever present, and in some cases quite overt and extreme,” Laura Morgan Roberts, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, tells Thrive. And when it’s not overt, she says it’s about “racial microaggressions, little comments and suggestions that signal to Black people that they don’t belong… and are not thought of in the same way as their [non-Black] counterparts.”

The opportunity now: to step up and take responsibility, and support Black Lives Matter. “Staying silent is being complicit,” says Roberts, the co-editor of Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience. True allyship means moving away from “optical allyship” (for the sake of, say, your social media presence), and moving into meaningful action, speaking out on social issues, and fostering an inclusive environment in and out of the workplace.

This movement deserves our attention and our action for many reasons — including the fact that racism is a public health crisis. Just look at the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on the Black community: An analysis of data by the APM Research Lab found Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites, Latinos, or Asian Americans to die from COVID-19. As Black Americans bear the brunt of multiple crises at once, “the Black community said ‘enough,’ and our allies also said ‘enough,’” says Washington.

But saying “enough” is just the beginning. Here are some of the actionable steps organizations, leaders, and employees can take to bring about true change at work.

Shift your mindsets

“There’s an assumption that doing something will immediately solve the issue,” says Washington, noting that racism is not a problem that was created overnight and thus 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.” For employers, that means “examining recruitment, retention, and promotion policies, taking an honest look at their culture and things that could be supporting inequality.”

Reflect on your own practices, advises Roberts, then “allow yourself to feel your full range of emotions. Feel the shock, the sadness, maybe feel the shame if that’s a piece of it.” But don’t make your own pain the focus of your allyship, she says, because it’s important that Black colleagues don’t feel they need to start comforting you.

Commit to learning

“That’s what allyship means,” says Roberts: “acknowledging that there’s a whole set of experiences that are pressing and painful for many people in your organization that you may have had no awareness about.” Business leaders, she says, also need to “identify ways you drew upon the resources, the talents, and the skills of Black people for your business to become what it is now.” As for learning at a younger age, children are not taught “very much about the history of Black people at school, and that’s a large part of the problem,” says Roberts.

Bottom line: “It is on white people to educate themselves about the history of this country, why we are here now and why we got here,” says Washington.  

“This is a critical moment to learn more,” says Roberts. Don’t let fear of “I don’t know where to begin” keep you from doing the work — start anywhere! A few suggestions: In a recent Harvard Business Review article co-authored by Roberts and Washington, a number of resources are recommended, including the following: The H.B.R. article series “Toward a Racially Just Workplace”; The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh; How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi; and “Talking about Race,” a web portal from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Roberts also suggests following diversity officers at large firms on LinkedIn — such as Erin Thomas, Ph.D., Chief Diversity Officer at Upwork — in order to keep up to date on their insights and posts.

Think about what it means to be a true friend

“Being an ally means being a friend in its simplest form. How can you be a friend to your Black colleagues in the workplace?” says Washington. “One thing that white people can do is amplify Black voices,” and make sure there’s diversity in the room when decisions are being made and promotion policies are formed. “It’s your job to stand up for your Black employees and speak out and not allow things to go on as business as usual.”

Also: “Be ready to take the heat,” says Roberts. “The heat comes when you start to call out racism, in all of its forms. Calling out racism can be career ending or career damaging,” but as an ally, that’s what we need to do when we observe any injustice, she says. Look for “those moments when you can make an intervention just by pausing and calling into question someone’s behavior.” 

Create a sense of belonging

Leaders and CEOs “need to investigate the parts of their culture that lead Black employees to not feel a full sense of belonging in the workplace,” says Washington. They should also be open to feedback. “You have to have a mechanism to listen to people,” for example, employee engagement surveys can help you get the feedback that you need to implement change. 

If you’re serious about being anti-racist, says Roberts, “you have to go to the core, start pulling some things apart, and rebuilding institutions in a way that is more inclusive.” That may mean drastic changes to the way the organization runs in order to create an environment where Black employees feel psychologically safe. One tactical idea she suggests: making sure there is built-in time on the agenda at meetings so that every person “gets to weigh in and speak.” It’s important she says, “because the dominant voices dominate the conversation, and other voices are excluded. So you have to be intentional about inviting those other voices in.”

Hire and promote Black people

Leaders need to take a critical look at current policies that have a negative impact on Black employees and other minorities, says Washington: “If you look at the last five years in your organization at who has been considered for promotion and who has actually been promoted, and if you don’t see diversity there, then there’s a problem.” What’s more, 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 that it serves.”

Roberts agrees that there’s been a “lack of significant progress in advancing Black leaders to the most senior level of organizations. Black employees’ “credentials and qualifications are still questioned,” says Roberts. When you’re filling roles, rather than hiring “people who look like you, or who remind you of your younger self, try to go for and identify people who don’t necessarily look like you.”

Channel hope for a better future

As for what lies ahead, Roberts is optimistic: “I believe that change happens when people’s hearts are changed. And if this is a moment when people develop a moral conviction, and an intolerance for racial injustice and oppression, then we’re on our way to a brighter future.”

“It’s not enough for corporations or individuals to sit on the sidelines anymore. I think that this is more than just a moment in time,” says Washington. “I am hopeful because I think that this will cause a shift in the conversation. And I am hopeful that there’s no going back.”

Follow us here and subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.