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IN YOUR CORNER? HOW TO BE AN ALLY TO COLLEAGUES

Mark Webb, head of comms for charity Shift.ms, explains why championing allyship at work can lead to a better work environment.

1st December 2021

Allyship is essential in the workplace if organisations want to create a safe space for all employees.

MARK WEBB


In the world we live in – a world that should be equal, but isn’t – being an ally is a moral imperative. This means going out of your way to actively support and advance marginalised individuals, communities or groups, while educating yourself and speaking up against injustice.

Allyship is essential in the workplace if organisations want to create a safe space for all employees, as without it, diversity and inclusion will fail.


I felt first-hand the difference allyship in the workplace can make as an employee, after I was diagnosed with MS in 2007. I’d been working for electronics retailer Dixons (as it was known then) for a year when I got my official diagnosis. I took two weeks off to grieve and, in that time, unbeknownst to me, my colleagues were becoming my allies.

They took the time to research what my illness was and how it might be impacting my mental health. This meant that when I came back, they knew how to talk to me and that I might need space.

The response was wonderful. It made my MS easier to cope with at work as I had people who didn’t shy away from me, and instead wanted to help and support me.


Being an ally can take courage as it often requires people to deal with something that is out of their comfort zone. Often, when people feel scared to broach a subject for fear of saying the wrong thing, they just avoid it completely. But ignoring important issues and the people they impact is not the solution.  

Instead, research is your friend. There are so many tools and resources online that you can access that will give you better insight into the struggles people are facing.

Where appropriate, you can also directly ask the person or people who you are trying to support how you can best do so. This requires empathy, which means being available to listen and acknowledging your own privilege without being defensive. 

There may be policies or practices in place within your organisation that are benefitting you but disadvantaging others, and being an ally means addressing this.

This is especially pertinent if you’re in a senior position or if, through your role, you have access to senior leaders. Use whatever leverage you have to ask senior management difficult questions and hold the organisation to account.


It’s a known fact that diversity within workforces breeds success. It creates more productive teams, and organisations do better as a result. If you encourage an atmosphere of allyship within your organisation, you’re more likely to reap the benefits of any diversity initiatives that are in place.

Transparency is key when it comes to communicating your D&I approach, and you also need to make sure the actions of the organisation match the words within your messaging.

Nothing will change overnight, and you won’t have all the answers, but you can show you’re invested in learning. Direct employees to D&I courses and bring in skilled D&I consultants to host talks and workshops.
 

For an increasing number of jobseekers, the new sexy is a company that is ethical and open, rather than one that is “cool”. As such, championing allyship and living this will help you to attract and retain talent. 

For me, as a disabled employee, allyship from my employer looked like understanding, support and problem solving.

When my illness and symptoms progressed, I began to struggle with my full-time role. Instead of letting me go, Dixons created a role that would work for me and for them. This role was a meaningful one, and not only was it a success from a business perspective, it also helped me as a disabled person.

I left Dixons over five years ago, and the gratitude I have for them still floods through when I talk about my time there. I’m the ultimate employee advocate, and this kind of feedback is what all employers should want from employees who have moved on.

Employees don’t just want a pay rise to feel fulfilled – they want to feel seen and heard.

 

3 quick tips

1. Research what issues or challenges your colleagues might be facing. To be a true ally, take it upon yourself to educate and improve your knowledge.

2. Don’t treat diversity and inclusion as a box-ticking exercise. Internal communication has a role to address policies, processes or cultural approaches that don’t truly include everyone.

3. Establish or build on a culture of openness and honesty among all employees. Use it as a way to boost employee morale, and encourage senior leaders to set targets in order to measure progress.

 

Listed in 2021 as one of the UK’s 100 most influential disabled people, Mark Webb is a disability advocate and public speaker. He is also head of communications for Shift.ms, a social network for people diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Mark blogs at onemanandhiscatheters.com, and is writing a book (“slowly,” he admits).


 

Allyship is essential in the workplace if organisations want to create a safe space for all employees.

MARK WEBB

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