In a world of increasing opportunity, economic mobility, and openness, companies are learning (many of them the hard way) that inclusivity and diversity are not only good for employees—but also for business. As organizations push to create environments where diverse sets of employees feel comfortable and supported, other employees—often referred to as ‘allies’—will play a key, if not the most important, role. Regardless of who you are, there are ways to be an ally to others at work—even if you yourself lean on allies for support.
Making assumptions about someone’s ethic background, sexual orientation, gender, etc. is a surefire way to make them feel alienated—and as if they are defined by these traits, rather than evaluated by the quality of their work and strength of their personality. Whether it’s to someone’s face or to other employees, avoid drawing your own conclusions about other employees, and instead ask open questions to test whether it’s something they want to talk about.
This also applies to making assumptions about whether a person wants these things to be exposed to the rest of the business. If a colleague confides to you about coming out—whether with regards to sexuality, gender, a mental illness, or something else—don’t assume they want everyone to know. First, ask how you can help: If they want your assistance in spreading the word or coming up with a way to talk to people about it, they’ll let you know—and you won’t risk compromising trust by spreading their information without permission.
It can be tempting to impose your own opinions and strategies when someone talks to you about something they’re struggling with—and it might feel like you’re helping out. But part of being a good ally is understanding that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, and truly listening to their perspective can not only help you to better understand them, but also to be a better ally to others.
Once you’ve done your listening, use those learnings to support this person going forward. This doesn’t necessarily mean talking openly about what they’ve shared with you, but rather helping to create an environment where they feel more comfortable: For example, asking for their perspective in a team meeting when the topic is something that you know they’d have a unique perspective on.
As you become a better ally, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the similarities between colleagues of all colors, mental states, sexualities, etc. Employees can end up feeling isolated when they feel the people around them can’t or won’t try to understand their perspective—but as an ally you will be in the unique position of being able to build bridges between colleagues based on commonalities. For example, two people of different race and sexuality may assume they have nothing to talk about—but if you know they both recently had children, you might be able to spark a conversation (and even, perhaps, a friendship).
Especially if you’re just starting out as an ally, be open about the fact that you don’t know everything—and apologize if and when you misstep. In general, people will appreciate you owning up to it and may even take the opportunity to help you learn. Even after you’ve had some successes as an ally (perhaps multiple people have confided in you or thanked you for your support), don’t assume you’re done learning; Continue to learn from other allies, as well as keeping an open conversation about where you have room to improve.