Give Wholehearted Recommendations and Other Actions for Allies

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

Better Allies®
5 min readJan 15, 2021
Hand writing on paper: Give recommendations with Confidence: No Hedging, No faint praises, No undermining.

1. Make sure coworkers feel safe, heard, and cared for

Last week’s attack on the US Capitol still weighs heavily on me. Perhaps you feel the same way.

In addition to dealing with my personal feelings and concerns, I’m sorting out what guidance I can give the Better Allies community. How should an ally show up in these unprecedented times? What actions should one take to be inclusive, show support, and be empathetic to others’ concerns?

I was inspired by a blog post from Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work. His key message is that we should be speaking up even when silence is far easier. As he wrote, “Silence enables and forces people to assume what you think and believe.” Bush goes on to share some specific suggestions of how to transcend personal political choice and instead hold a values-based discussion about democracy and your organization’s role in preserving it.

He also advised telling employees that you want to know how to best support them so they feel safe, heard, and cared for. This is where allies can step up.

To take action, consider this approach from Lara Hogan, a best-selling author on tech leadership: Do lightweight check-ins with your teammates, offering them options to understand what they might need. Hogan provides these examples:

  • “Just wanted to check in. Would it be more helpful to keep our one-on-one today, reduce it to 15 minutes, or skip it? I’m happy no matter what — just want to make sure you have what you need.”
  • “Hey, so it looks like this ticket still hasn’t been finished yet. We still need it done by Friday, but obviously things are bananas right now for everyone, so I’m eager to hear your thoughts: would it be more helpful if a) we paired on it together, b) you took an extra 24 hours on it, or c) something else?”
  • “So normally we’d be talking about career planning this month. But this is obviously a strange time! Would you prefer we have a career conversation this week, or would you prefer we push it back by a month? Either way works for me.”

2. Review reductions by demographic

In December, we recorded another milestone on the unofficial “lousy workplace gender diversity timeline” — Women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs lost in the US. Digging into the data more, I learned a few key points from this analysis from the National Women’s Law Center:

  • As a group, men gained 16,000 jobs while women lost 156,000. The economy as a whole lost 140,000.
  • There are nearly 2.1 million fewer women in the labor force in December than in February before the pandemic started.
  • 154,000 Black women left the labor force in December, marking the largest one-month drop in their labor force size since March and April 2020.

Even if these job cuts were not in your industry sector (many were in leisure and hospitality), there’s still an important cautionary tale to learn.

When planning a layoff or a reduction in workforce, review the demographics of who you’re planning to cut. If the percentages of women, Black women, and members of other underrepresented groups are more impacted than your overall workforce, push back. Raise a red flag. Ask why.

3. Give wholehearted recommendations

If a coworker does lose their job, offer to give them a recommendation. Whether it’s with a formal letter, social media endorsement, verbal reference check, or a back-channel casual conversation, your endorsement can positively impact their career. As recommended in the Harvard Business Review, be sure to show complete confidence. No hedging (“she might be good”), faint praise (“she’ll do okay”), or other phrases that undermine (“she needs only minimal guidance”).

Wondering why I’m calling this out? Turns out that in a study of recommendations for academic positions, researchers found that letters about women included more doubt-raising phrases than those about men, and that even one such phrase can make a difference in a job search. This means that a lukewarm recommendation may be more harmful than no recommendation at all.

The next time you give someone a recommendation, make it a wholehearted one. Focus on the person’s traits and accomplishments that are overwhelmingly positive and praise them to the skies. Otherwise, you risk shutting a door you intended to open.

4. Measure the impact of your ERGs

Albrey Brown, head of DEI at Airtable and a Better Allies champion, wanted a fresh perspective in his DEI plans for 2021, so he talked to experts across industries to find out what they were thinking. He shared some common themes in a Fast Company article, What I learned from talking to 20 diversity, equity, and inclusion experts.

While I recommend reading the entire article, here’s just one nugget:

“Some leaders are quantifying the impact of their ERGs [Employee Resource Groups] by comparing engagement survey scores from the entire employee population to scores from ERG members.”

If your organization conducts an engagement or pulse survey, are you using it to measure the impact of your ERGs? If not, consider advocating for this analysis and using it to justify investing in ERGs so they can have even more impact.

5. Host a book club discussion

Figuring out how to be a better ally in your workplace or community doesn’t need to be a solo task. Instead, why not host a Better Allies book club? I have a discussion guide to get you started.

As I shared last week, I’ve published the 2nd Edition of Better Allies. It is close enough to the 1st Edition that book club attendees can read either one and have a valuable discussion. (I wouldn’t want someone to have to purchase the new edition if they already have a copy.) The discussion guide applies to both.

Reminder: The Kindle version of the 2nd Edition is on sale through January 18, 2021, for the low, low price of just US $2.99 US. (Other Amazon marketplaces have similar discounts). Prefer print? You can find paperbacks and hardcovers on Amazon, or ask your favorite bookstore to order one for you.

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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Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.