How Allies Can Clear Barriers

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

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Photo by Sunrise on Unsplash

1. Be an ally, not a savior, by clearing barriers

Dr. Erin Thomas, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Upwork, posed this rhetorical question on Twitter:

“A concern I often hear from employees of color is that workplace allyship can start to feel like a virtue signaling competition. So, how do you serve as an effective ally to your colleagues and directs without veering into savior complex territory?”

She went on to answer her question in this thread. While I recommend reading her complete response, here’s the TL;DR: Embrace a mindset of removing the barriers that are limiting colleagues from realizing their potential versus thinking about all the ways we might “save” colleagues by promoting them and adding to what they already bring to work.

While Dr. Thomas agrees that promoting and advocating for employees from underrepresented groups is important, she thinks it contributes to saviorism.

“Look at how much I’m going out of my way to do things for you!”

Better is to consider allyship as a subtractive process. In other words, clear the barriers.

Read on for some ideas I believe embrace this mindset.

2. Review the invite list

Shortly after she became CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki spoke up about how tech industry titan Bill Campbell had removed a substantial barrier for her. In an article for Vanity Fair, she wrote:

“I learned about an important invitation-only conference convening most of the top leaders in tech and media, yet my name was left off the guest list. Many of the invitees were my peers, meaning that YouTube wouldn’t be represented while deals were cut and plans were made. I started to question whether I even belonged at the conference. But rather than let it go, I turned to Bill, someone I knew had a lot of influence and could help fix the situation. He immediately recognized I had a rightful place at the event and within a day he worked his magic and I received my invitation.”

Folks, let’s all look closely at the invite list for events, strategic planning meetings, dinners with key partners, and other career-building opportunities. If you see someone from an underrepresented group missing, ask for them to be invited.

3. Refocus a “splainer”

In 3 strategies women can use to make sure their ideas are heard at work, author Dr. Lois Frankel shared tips for women to add to their toolbox to be more effective communicators in a male-dominated workplace. I think the tips are also helpful for being better allies and reducing the barriers facing women and other members of underrepresented groups.

One situation Dr. Frankel explores is the mansplainer who “tries to bury you in verbiage — particularly the patronizing kind.” Her recommendation? Interrupt politely, acknowledge their expertise, and redirect the conversation to the desired end-goal. For example,

“I know this is a subject that you know a lot about, and I really appreciate your willingness to share it with us. But let’s talk about what we all want, which is [topic].”

As Ariel Robinson shared on Twitter,

“In community organizing/strategic communications, this tactic is (sometimes) known by the acronym ARR: acknowledge, respond, and redirect.”

Love it.

4. Reassign the credit

Here’s another tip inspired by Dr. Frankel’s interview above, to use when you spot someone publicly claiming another person’s insights as their own. Unfortunately, idea hijacking (also known as “bropropiration”) happens all too often, and usually to people from underrepresented groups.

Let’s say Ana has previously stated an idea in a meeting, email message, or Slack thread. If you see someone else stating her idea as their own, thank the person and say, “I’d like to add a couple of things that have occurred to me since Ana first told me about it.”

Want another idea? Here’s a recommendation from Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces: “I like that idea a lot. In fact, when Ana brought that up last week in our one-on-one, I learned the following …”

5. Look out for bias during interview debriefs

In The Better Allies™ Approach to Hiring, I curated best practices to recruit and hire people from underrepresented groups. Just one is to look out for biased comments as an interview team meets to discuss a candidate. Comments that might prevent someone from being hired. Here’s what they can look like:

“That candidate doesn’t have [some qualification that doesn’t exist on the job description but that more privileged candidates meet].”

“They wouldn’t want this role because of the travel.”

“Before hiring them, I’d like to see them prove they can handle [responsibility they’ve already done].”

“I don’t want to lower the bar.”

“I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic, but [some comment about the candidate].”

“They wouldn’t be a culture fit.”

If you hear a biased comment, call it out. Plus, make sure you’re using structured interview techniques to ensure you’re evaluating candidates on the skills and abilities you’re seeking. (Check out my hiring guide for many more ideas for being equitable and inclusive in the recruiting process.)

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies

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