Blog | 6 Jun 2019

The Role of Allyship in Forging Diverse and Inclusive Workplaces

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

The Role of Allyship in Forging Diverse and Inclusive Workplaces

An ally is any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole. (Sheree Atcheson, 2018)


The Relationship Between Communities and Their Allies

The concept of allyship and using your own position of power or privilege to elevate your colleagues is key to fostering not only diverse but truly inclusive workplaces. Allies are a key part of the D&I process, bringing attention to the experiences of marginalised groups when their voices are not being heard. Voice and actions are symbiotic in the role of the ally: calling out inappropriate behaviour or actively using inclusive language is equally as important as sponsoring the career of a person from an underrepresented community or rolling out a programme of unconscious bias training for your team.

That said, the relationship between allies and those they advocate for is delicate: in recognising the importance of becoming an ally, the ally themselves must continually reflect on their own actions, understanding that they should make way and provide a platform to underrepresented or marginalised groups so they can advocate on their own behalf as well. It falls upon an ally’s shoulders to ensure they are sensitive to the lived experiences of others, believing the experiences of underrepresented groups, amplifying their voices and performing regular self-evaluations to establish their own behaviour is inclusive. Making changes in this way is a process and requires proactive self-education as well as the ability to take cues from the marginalised group, understanding where their input is needed and when it is more appropriate to allow others to deliver the message. The ally must be humble and courageous enough to admit to and address the mistakes that they will inadvertently make.

Traditionally, allyship is associated with the well-established dimensions of D&I: gender, LGBT+ inclusion etc. However, we know that allyship is vital to further all facets of D&I within businesses and its principles can be applied to inclusion for any group – including those with disabilities or mental health challenges. The Valuable 500 Campaign highlights the way that companies often overlook disability as a key component of D&I in the parody film, Diversish. As D&I becomes more firmly rooted in the DNA and culture of organisations across the world, practitioners must ensure that their actions are truly inclusive of all diverse consumer or employee groups. Similarly, allyship should extend to colleagues with disabilities or mental health issues just as readily as it is offered to a female, LGBT+ or ethnic minority co-worker.


Stonewall’s Theories of Business Engagement

According to Stonewall, there are three ways companies can engage on inclusion and offer their allyship and support to employees. (Note: while Stonewall laid out its theory of engagement in relation to LGBT+ inclusion, the principles can be applied to a variety of diverse identifiers, such as disability, or caste in India).

  • When in Rome: Adhering to the ‘norms’ of the place of operation - in essence, doing nothing to challenge entrenched biases or to change the culture so that it is more inclusive.  Such an environment does not encourage allyship and may mean that LGBT+ individuals may feel the need to hide their identities at work. On the whole, this way of operating is bad for business – both employees and customers are increasingly looking to businesses to be beacons of equality and vote with their feet if they feel that company values do not match their own.
  • The Embassy: Inclusive and supportive policies are in place inside the organisation, however, external threats to equality are not challenged by the business. This approach can lead to complacency and be used as an excuse to not challenge the status quo and push for legislative or wider societal change.
  • The Advocate: This company is not only internally committed to LGBT+ inclusion, but are externally vocal in the call for LGBT+ equality. Adopting the stance ‘we are not neutral’, they advocate for anti-discrimination laws, respect for gender identity and marriage equality.

Stonewall identifies The Advocate as the ideal position  for companies when taking on the role of ally for LGBT+ employees, noting that this may not be the easiest option for companies - and may even cause them to lose some customers – but in the long run, a neutral or complacent stance does not  protect employees and will not create the environment for  invoking positive change or challenging mindsets.


Allyship Between Organisations

In recent years, we have seen allyship develop in an encouraging way between companies in the LGBT+ inclusion space, even though they might be fierce competitors.  Some of the leading D&I pioneers have generously offered their resources, advice, expertise, and mentorship to other companies who are at earlier stages of their D&I journey. This has not only led to positive outcomes for these individual companies but has also resulted in an elevation of the business sector as a whole, as well as visible progress in new and diverse industries. Just this year, we saw a phenomenal increase in the number of non-financial companies ranking in the top ten of the Hong Kong LGBT+ Inclusion Index (five of the top ten in 2019, compared with zero in 2017) as well as greater diversity overall in the Index participants. Inspired by top-ranked and established companies such as Goldman Sachs and HSBC, Thomson Reuters formulated the road to gold: an ambitious plan to raise their Index ranking to gold standard. Keen to expand the diversity of industries at gold level (a category traditionally dominated by the financial services industry), Thomson Reuters shared relevant parts of the approach with other organisations, leveraging networks such as HKGALA to share ideas and identify areas of collaboration and mutual benefit. The results speak for themselves and we are delighted to see that this allyship between otherwise competing firms has resulted in positive cultural change.

Similarly, in the mental health space (a topic gaining traction among companies keen to put employee wellbeing at the top of their agendas), Barclays extended their This Is Me campaign – a story-telling platform designed to challenge the stigma around mental health at work and break the culture of silence – to other companies, first in the UK and eventually around the world. By partnering with several mental health and business-focused charities, Barclays encouraged over 115 companies to learn more about the campaign, with 22 of them actually implementing their own internal This Is Me activities.

Inspired by this solidarity and allyship, Community Business is developing a similar campaign for companies in India, opening up the platform to include discussion on all aspects of disability in the workplace, not just mental health.


About the Author: Emily Moss, Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications, Community Business