IBIS shares news, insight and best practices about pressing Diversity & Inclusion and Unconscious Bias topics in today’s workplace.

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The Leader As Ally: How to Make It Work

When discrimination happens, people look to CEOs and leaders of familiar brands like Starbucks, SalesForce, YouTube and beyond to help chart the course to an environment in which employees do not exhibit behavior that hurts others. It’s part of what keeps us, as a public collective, in order: good leaders stand up for the right thing, even when it is hard. When leaders amplify our concerns, it means that we don’t have to yell quite so loud when we perceive injustice.

Fulfilling this expectation doesn’t come easily for all leaders. The values aligned with the act of standing up for someone else might fall outside of a leader’s traditional comfort zone. Kindness? Fairness? These aren’t typically seen as key drivers of a cutting-edge, competitive, high-achieving organization—or leader.

But when leaders stand up as adversaries of discrimination, they have an outsize impact on diversity, equity and inclusion—and that impact can have significant upside, apart from being a helping hand. Reams of data support the business case for diversity as an increase in innovative practices; taking action on this issue is about more than being fair, it’s being smart.

With this slate of opportunities and challenges, how can organizational leaders assume the role of ally for the more marginalized voices among us?

At IBIS, we’ve seen a wide range of leadership styles adapt to becoming more of an ally through a few tested strategies. While best practices will evolve, here’s what we’ve seen work:

  • Assume that people need to hear from you. Just because you maintain a tight focus on an area of the organization, such as sales, operations, investment, or growth doesn’t mean that you can’t also serve as an ally. Use your voice to speak up against discrimination.
  • Recognize that there is risk—for example, risk of alienating those who don’t agree with disrupting bias, or risk of getting a message across which doesn’t express exactly what was intended—but those risks are worth creating an environment in which people feel safe, accepted and secure.
  • Educate yourself. Read books, articles and blogs by authors who don’t represent your demographic perspective; watch videos and movies on topics such as racism and sexism; consume media that teaches you something you didn’t already know. Come out of your comfort zone and absorb diverse perspectives.
  • Find a coach. Engage a Chief Diversity Officer or diversity coach to help you practice difficult conversations, to answer your questions and to support your growth.
  • Understand the difference between equity and equality. Recognize that in order to succeed, different people need different things – this is equity. Equality refers to everyone getting the same tools and resources, and that is not always enough. You may need to stand up for one person when another wouldn’t need it, which is a key component of successful diversity and inclusion.
  • Join organizations that can support your work. Standing against bias can feel isolating at times, so don’t hesitate to seek support and guidance from others, both individuals and organizations, who can offer guidance.

The leaders who stand as allies with victims of discrimination have an impact that is twofold: not only do they serve as a catalyst for positive change, but by standing with those who need it most, they also model the way for the rest of us to stand up against bias.

3 Actions You Can Take To Be a More Effective Ally

Most of us are bystanders to biased behavior every day – sometimes multiple times a day.

One of the most important actions we can take in the workplace to make it more respectful and inclusive is to react thoughtfully when we observe what we think might be biased behavior – to move from being a passive bystander to an active ally.

While this is a weighty topic, we offer three guidelines for action:

1. Don’t Just Let It Go. Even if it takes time to recognize bias, take the time to address it. There are lots of ways to be an ally, and not all of them require intervening in the moment. So if you decide it’s not appropriate to say something at the time, or if you don’t realize until later that you just witnessed biased behavior, don’t just let it go. You can always speak to the person who acted in a biased way to give them feedback on their behavior. And you can also talk with the person who was the recipient of the behavior to share what you observed and ask how you can be helpful in supporting them.

2. Inform Others. Let HR, managers, and leaders know what you observed. It’s possible to frame behavior in a neutral way when describing a situation, but don’t let fear stop you from sharing your concerns. Getting out of your comfort zone is a necessary part of changing biased behavior around you.

3. Listen with Curiosity. Build relationships in the workplace that are based on judgment-free listening and genuine exchange. The more trust and dialogue you can cultivate, the less likely bias is to crop up in the workplace. And be sure to educate yourself on the perspectives of others as much as possible (ask questions, read books and articles written by marginalized authors, watch movies and television shows on the topics at hand).

Advises new IBIS team member Tom Bourdon, “Use your privilege in a positive way! Privilege doesn’t have to be a dirty word…but it is if you’re only using it in selfish ways. As allies, we have the responsibility to recognize our own privilege and then use that privilege to improve the situation for others.

As allies, it’s not our role to swoop in and take over, or have our voices drown out the voices of those who are struggling, but rather to take a stand and offer our support in ways that could potentially be critical to creating positive change.”

Writer Cedar Pruitt is a senior diversity consultant at IBIS, specializing in inclusive leadership and culture at organizations ranging from start-up companies to competitive universities.