5 Things Allies Can Do to Sponsor Coworkers from Underrepresented Groups

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Better Allies®
4 min readMay 22, 2020
A graphic of 5 things allies can do to sponsor coworkers from underrepresented groups.
Image by Danielle Coke of So Happy Social

1. Speak their name when they aren’t around

In her 2018 TEDWomen talk, which has been viewed over 3 million times, Carla Harris delivered an important message about meritocracy … or lack thereof. She debunked the myth that to get ahead, you just need to do great work and it will be recognized and rewarded. Instead, she points out that you need a sponsor who will speak your name when you’re not in the room. Someone who is invited to decision-making meetings and is willing to spend some of their hard-earned social capital advocating on your behalf. Someone who has your back.

Allies, let’s make sure we know coworkers from underrepresented groups so we can speak about them and their work when they’re not around.

2. Endorse them publicly

Before becoming an author and advocate for inclusive workplaces, I spent twenty-five years in the software industry, including working for a software company that was acquired by Adobe. In the first few months following the acquisition, I noticed something interesting. My new manager, Digby Horner — who had been at Adobe for many years — said things in meetings along the lines of: “What I learned from Karen is the following …”

By doing this, Digby helped me build credibility with my new colleagues. His shout-outs made a difference and definitely made me feel great. He took action as an ally, using his position of privilege to endorse me publicly.

Sharing what you learned from someone is just one approach to vocally support coworkers to boost their standing and reputation. Take a minute to reflect on how you express your support today, and how you might do even more of it.

3. Invite them to high-profile meetings

It might be a strategic planning video session, an advisory council meeting, or virtual drinks with the recently hired executive. When we can safely gather again, it might be grabbing lunch with some VIP.

The next time you’re attending one of these high-profile meetings, invite a coworker from an underrepresented group to join you. (If you think you need to make sure it’s okay to do so, by all means ask first.)

Give them insight into the discussion while increasing their visibility with the people around the table.

4. Share their career goals with decision-makers

During the late 1980s, my partner Tim and I both worked at an applied research center at Brown University. (Yup, I’m that old.) Because of the economic recession at the time, the center’s funding from corporate partners started to dry up, and we knew we were facing a downsizing. So we offered our resignations and decided to follow a dream we shared — to move to England, where Tim had spent his early childhood.

Soon after giving our notice to resign, my manager, Norm Meyrowitz, approached me with some exciting news. He had just met with two researchers who were visiting from a suburb of London, mentioned that I was moving there, and strongly recommended they hire me. (Knowing Norm, he probably told them they’d be stupid not to.) He could have been bitter about my resignation, but instead he opened a door for me, both literally and figuratively. He brought me into the conference room to meet them, and I joined their research group soon after.

Of course, career goals don’t have to include international moves. They could involve the next step on a job ladder or joining a different team to gain a certain kind of experience. They could be as basic as finding a new role after a layoff.

Now, ask yourself if you’re familiar with the career goals of your colleagues from underrepresented groups. And how you’ll make sure you’re sharing them with influential people and decision-makers within your organization or industry.

5. Recommend them for stretch assignments and speaking opportunities

Skill-building projects and giving presentations are like multivitamins for a career. They can magnify one’s visibility within an organization, help increase confidence, enhance social networks, and build credibility. Ultimately, they can help someone be better positioned for a promotion.

The next time you need someone to stand in for you on a presentation or take on a high-profile assignment, reflect on your selection criteria. Do you tend to give this kind of work to certain people or certain types of people? What would it take to expand that pool? If you know only a few people who have the skills you value for these plum assignments, you might need to expand your network. Or figure out how more people, especially people outside your normal go-to list, can learn those skills.

Stretch assignments and speaking in public opens doors and ignites careers. Allies, it’s essential we find ways to spread that joy around.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies

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Better Allies®

Everyday actions to create more inclusive, engaging workplaces: the Better Allies® approach from Karen Catlin.