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Do you call yourself an ally? In the DEI space, it’s a term we use often to describe the many people who align with and support equitable opportunities for others, specifically people from underrepresented and historically marginalized groups. Some people claim the term proudly. Others do the work of allyship but don’t align with the label of “ally.” And still others see the term as provocative or triggering, perhaps hinting at its overuse and sometimes ambiguous meaning. 

To begin, let’s agree on this definition from Harvard Business Review. Allyship, they write, is “a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and co-conspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy.” In other words, to be an ally is to be someone engaged in strategic acts that build a more just and equitable workplace… and world. 

Essentially, we wouldn’t need the term “ally” if all people had equal chances and resources; if there weren’t a lack of support and equity in the workplace; if there weren’t an ongoing struggle for people of all backgrounds to be adequately seen, heard, and respected. We wouldn’t need the term if there were an equal distribution of power and privilege both in and outside of professional spaces. 

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Yet today, we find ourselves reckoning with the fact that the collective well-being of underrepresented groups requires that people who have high privilege in the world work as allies against systemic issues and power structures that inhibit everyone’s success. In every sense of the definition, allyship requires strategic, intentional action.

Too often, the conversation around effective allyship is overshadowed by a struggle to adopt the word as a tacit addendum to a growing list of identities—as if, once proclaimed, the process of being an “ally” is over and the battle to adequately support, sponsor, and advocate is complete. No way, you might be thinking. We know better. 

Yet recent data shows that many people—even folks who label themselves as allies—take few actions to support their colleagues from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. In fact, according to McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, “although White employees recognize that speaking out against discrimination is critical, they are less likely to recognize the importance of more proactive, sustained steps such as advocating for new opportunities for women of color and stepping up as mentors and sponsors.” 

In light of that data, let’s talk about five things you can do today to move beyond labels and be an active ally in your workplace, regardless of whether or not you choose the “ally” label. 

1) Remember that allyship means action.

The non-binary writer Archangel writes the following in a thought piece for The Everyday Magazine: “Allies don’t exist. No one is born an ally. Allyship is a choice, an action, not an identity. An ally is only an ally in the moment of that action.” In other words, allyship is measured in outward and noticeable actions, not in the self-reliant moments of ego in between. The moments that matter are when we move the needle forward toward equity and equality, and our job as aspiring participants in allyship is to prepare for opportunities when they arise.

2) Educate yourself so you’re prepared to foster an inclusive environment.

Especially in the workplace, nothing can replace the lived experiences of people from underrepresented communities. There are many ways we can attempt to bridge the gap, and in doing so, we can create avenues for respectful and thoughtful dialogue about working together toward a more inclusive work environment. What does that mean? On a personal level, it means seeking out historic texts and resources–like documentaries, podcasts, and MicroVideos–that will help illuminate the context of today’s spotlight on justice and equity.  

And on an organizational level, it means finding reputable organizations that will help you conduct DEI audits and provide tools on organization-wide empathy exercises or inclusion training. Most importantly, it means choosing not to use members of a particular identity group to find, explain, or debate these resources with you. It means taking ownership of your own education. 

3) Welcome and solicit feedback.

You’ll know you’ve fully disengaged from taking feedback personally when you can receive constructive critique from peers in the workplace about improvements to your work around inclusion. For instance, when you can respectfully respond to another person editing your workplace language to be more inclusive of all identities. These conversations are not always easy, but they are necessary. 

Make it a practice to request feedback from colleagues, peers, and employees who are different from you, being cognizant of power structures in which being the only representative of a certain group may cause emotional labor. Recognize that workplace norms often contribute to expectations of retaliation when employees outside of leadership positions offer their honest feedback, so work to establish feedback channels where grievances and edits can be given and received without apprehension.

4) Bring seats to the table.

In a recent article on allyship, Forbes notes that small yet mighty action makes for impactful results around diversity and inclusion. For instance, moving from mentorship (providing sideline-level advice) to sponsorship (active coaching and involvement in someone else’s career progression) of underrepresented professionals; practicing intentional inclusive language in the workplace; utilizing varied recruitment methods to attract diverse candidates, and tasking your entire organization with prioritizing DEI initiatives, not simply colleagues with diversity, equity, or inclusion in their titles.

5) Allow your inner work to affect more than work.

Allyship requires introspection. It’s a process that begins and develops far beyond the surface of watercooler chats and corporate powerpoints. At its core, allyship is a cyclical and iterative process of self-reflection and a continued willingness to listen and change. 

The ambiguity in this definition isn’t unintentional or unnoticed. For people who are willing to engage in this work, many would agree that success is never clearly defined, but that the process, when done well, permeates spheres of life outside of work. The process of building relationships based on centering the needs and experiences of others helps to illuminate areas outside of work where you can be more inclusive as well: for example, in education, healthcare, parenting, entertainment, religion, community spaces, and more.

As you reflect on what allyship means to you and how to incorporate it into your working relationships or organizational values, remember that the foundational principle of the work is not claiming to be an ally but actually taking small actions every day that make the world more inclusive of and accessible to other people. 

You’ll know you’re an ally when you’re paving the way for underrepresented colleagues to do their best work and get the credit they deserve. In short, you’ll know you’re an ally when you’re looking out, not in.

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