ASAE Annual Meeting

Voices Carry: The Power of Allies and Inclusion in the Workplace

By Association Adviser staff • August 13, 2020

Bernadette Smith, The Equality Institute
Bernadette Smith, The Equality Institute

Why are diversity and allyship important?

“Diversity” and “allyship” are two buzzwords dominating the American conversation right now, but why are these concepts important? Bernadette Smith of The Equality Institute explains: Diversity drives innovation. Acceptance and defense of diversity, or allyship, lets people be their authentic selves. When people feel safe to share their brilliant, different ideas, an organization can bloom. In addition, according to Harvard Business Review, diverse companies earn 19% more revenue. So there is an economic incentive to foster diversity and inclusion in the workplace as well.

Unconscious bias

But unconscious bias clouds our ability to be an ally. All of us have unconscious biases. Unconscious bias hinders how we give out promotions, and how we treat clients and customers. We uncover our biases only when confronted with ideas or people who challenge them. Knowing and combating our biases helps us understand others better and become their ally. Which means it’s unproductive to have a network that looks like us. Having a more diverse personal and professional network helps us better communicate with everyone. What does your network look like?

Workplace inclusion matters, but about 61% of employees don’t show up authentically. They could be hiding any number of aspects of their life: who they love, what they enjoy doing outside of work, or struggles they’re experiencing, for example. And when authenticity is missing, employees won’t generate the interpersonal trust that is needed to let an inclusive environment take root and nurture more diverse ideas. So, psychological safety matters as much as inclusion efforts matter.

How to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace

What can you do to foster a safe, inclusive workplace? Be a visible ally. Call out microaggressions. Ask open-ended questions. Check in with people. These are hard times – someone may be struggling and you don’t know it. Take responsibility of your privilege and how you can use it to help others. Everyone has some kind of privilege. Even if you don’t feel you have much privilege, there are small things you can do to respect others and earn their trust:

  • Use their names, and learn how unusual names are pronounced.
  • Be an active listener.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Send personal emails.

We cannot be an ally when we make assumptions about someone’s intentions or actions. Overcome the tendency to assume by asking better questions. Smith recommends following the ARC model of conversing with someone:

Ask, from a place of curiosity, not confrontation or judgement. “Can you tell me more about…?” “Do you mind if we…?” “How would you feel about…?”

Respect: Actively listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t dismiss. Don’t form your response while they talk.

Connect: Paraphrase what they’ve said and validate: “Just so I’m clear…?”

Then, move on in your conversation.

We’ve all heard of the Golden Rule – treat others the way you want to be treated – but Smith asks that we start following the Platinum Rule – treat others as they want to be treated. Look for opportunities to address systemic issues within your organization. In practice, this could look like something as simple as putting pronouns in your email signature or LinkedIn profile to let others know how you want to be called, and what to call others. Share the best ideas from your team to leaders so they can see the value of your team. Give credit where it’s due. Be flexible with different work styles – especially now, as more people work from home and balance family and professional responsibilities. When it’s hard – and it will get hard – go back to your why. What the purpose of your org, and how are you serving that purpose?

Who has been an ally to you in the workplace? How can you pay it forward? We all have advantages, and we all have the ability to help others feel more authentic in the workplace.

For more about fostering diversity and allyship in your workplace, visit