Developing Allies at Every Level

August 25, 2020


Throughout the past 50 years, most organizations have sought to promote diversity.  Yet inclusion—creating work environments in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization's success—has remained elusive.  Nearly two-thirds of workers indicate that they have experienced and witnessed bias at work, according to one 2019 Deloitte survey.  That consulting firm now identifies allyship as the “missing link” that can help organizations ensure inclusion actually occurs.

In the past month, I’ve collected a small library of materials on allies and allyship.  Beyond a doubt, the best book that I’ve identified is Karen Catlin’s fast read, Better Allies, Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces (2019)  I’ve summarized the author’s key messages below.

What does it mean to be an ally?

Most of us genuinely believe that discrimination is wrong.  Allies distinguish themselves by believing that they have a responsibility to affirmatively act.  They speak up when they see bad behavior, and they make it their business to vocally support members of underrepresented groups, especially in ways that will enhance an underrepresented person’s standing and reputation. 

Allies work to build a more equitable and civil world.  By doing the right thing personally, they seek to be part of a systemic change that will help ensure the right thing is always done.


Allies acknowledge their privilege  

Catlin describes privilege as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a particular social group.”  I’m fully aware that several factors have given me a leg up:  I’m white, straight, have no significant disabilities, possess multiple advanced degrees, was born in the U.S., and am a native English speaker.  This does not mean that I haven’t needed to work hard.  Nor does it suggest that every aspect of my life has been easy.  It does mean that I have not needed to overcome obstacles that many others face on a daily basis.

People with privilege become effective allies when they use their own credibility and power to create a more inclusive environment where everyone can thrive. 


Specific roles allies can play

For your internal clients who struggle to know what they can and should do, Catlin describes seven specific roles that allies can play, including:

Sponsor – openly support the work of colleagues from underrepresented groups, especially when doing so will help boost their standing and reputations, for example, describe their expertise and recommend them for stretch assignments.

Champion – seek out opportunities where colleagues from an underrepresented group can take the lead, for example, place them in charge of a high-visibility assignment.

Amplifier – ensure that marginalized voices are heard and respected, for example, make sure that everyone who proposes a valuable idea receives credit and/or create a code of conduct for all shared communications and address people who fail to adhere to it.

Advocate – use your power and influence to bring peers from underrepresented groups into important circles of influence, for example, ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to attend key meetings, client events, and other career-building opportunities.

Scholar – learn about the challenges faced by members of a marginalized group, for example, ask a colleague from a marginalized group about their experience working within your company and/or organization.

Upstander – an upstander is the opposite of a bystander; rather than sitting on the sidelines, upstanders see or hear a wrong and actively confront the offensive behavior.

Confidant – become the safe space where members of underrepresented groups can express their hopes, fears, concerns, frustrations, needs, etc.


Know the difference between serving as an ally and acting as a “white knight”

While an ally seeks to create systemic change, a white knight rushes in with the intent to solve a particular problem. 

Among the workplace scenarios that Catlin describes is one in which a hiring committee appears to be measuring candidates inconsistently and in a manner that treats a candidate from an underrepresented group less favorably than other candidates.  A white knight might offer to personally mentor the candidate from the underrepresented group, which may well help that person but have no impact on hiring policies.  In contrast, an ally might state, “I’m concerned that we’re not consistently evaluating job candidates.  Let’s identify the objective criteria that we’ll use to evaluate everyone.”


Allies must be prepared for continuous learning

Catlin emphasizes that none of us will ever achieve perfection as an ally … we simply can’t know or anticipate what everyone needs or expects on a daily basis.  Furthermore, we may be unaware of our own inherent biases or counter-narratives.  We can, however, become respectfully inquisitive, eager to learn, and prepared to alter our own ideas and behaviors as needed.



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