How to Be a Good Ally in the Workplace

We all need the courage to stand up for injustice, and the best place to start is at work.


Over the last month of increased #BlackLivesMatter protests in the name of ending police brutality and racism, it has largely felt like a dam has burst, with a huge surge in the number of people supporting the movement and its goals. And while that’s a good start, the next step is pointing that newly awoken activist energy in the right direction. 

The first question that most well-meaning white people might have is likely, “How can I help?” Not everyone has the means to open their wallets, and with COVID still a major concern, taking to the streets can be a dangerous proposition, particularly for those with pre-existing health conditions or living with older relatives. But that’s okay, because one of the best ways to get involved is at work, where economic injustice and inequality runs rampant.

“Being a good ally at work could be as simple as being empathetic to how your BIPOC coworkers are feeling, and how they’re processing their own life experiences,” says etiquette expert Elaine Swann. “So it’s important to be empathetic and put forth an effort to listen. And then when the time is right, ask questions, so you can gain understanding. And in the event that you have an opportunity, then, to speak up or speak out, it will really come from a place of genuine compassion, concern and understanding — as opposed to something that’s more reactive due to the climate that we’re in.”

Now that you’ve taken the first step by listening and asking questions, the next step is, well, stepping up. “Ask yourself how you can use your own position or privilege to be an ally for your coworkers,” says Swann. “If and when you recognize that they’re being unfairly treated, that’s your cue, then, to speak up. Or if you happen to know that they’re getting paid way less than yourself, or maybe less than someone else who’s doing the exact same job with the exact same credentials and so forth, you speak up. Utilize your position and your privilege to seek equality within the workplace.”

In doing so, you might put yourself in a position, then, where your job is on the line. That’s a scary thought, but Swann would like to remind you that protecting and supporting your coworkers who are POC is no different than protecting or supporting a coworker who’s being bullied, or sexually harassed or threatened. “If you have a good moral compass about those things, then we should be able to take that same fervency and apply that to someone being untreated fairly because of the color of their skin.”

Black workers obviously have no obligation to help their white office mates come to this realization — it really should be intrinsic, after all. Swann does suggest, though, that reaching across any and all divides can be helpful in attracting more white people to the cause. “Be open to telling your story and sharing your Black experience without doing it in an accusatory manner. A lot of times, people don’t do anything because they just don’t know. And so if you approach your white colleagues, and if you’re putting them in a position to where they’re on the defensive, you’re not going to get an ally. But if you draw the person in by telling your story and sharing your heart with them and being open, I believe that you’ll have more allies, as opposed to folks who just run from the issue.”

Of course, while it’s a great thing to find a suddenly united front at the office, real change begins and ends with management, and how they’re able to change and affect corporate culture around the workplace. “My recommendation to management is to take a very honest assessment of what’s happening in your office — the culture, your hiring practices, how you pay and promote people — but do it with the actual employees who are of color, rather than coming up with an idea and saying, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re going to do. And this is our idea. We came up with this and this is what we’re laying on everybody.’ Instead, curate your effort, and get that feedback from your employees.”

“This is a lot of years of undoing. It’s just a lot, it’s an undoing of a lot of years of stuff. And so it’s going to take time. We have to recognize it is going to take time.”