In business and in life we frequently hear that we can’t just ‘talk the talk’ but that we also need to ‘walk the walk’. This phrase is used to describe situations in which it’s critical our actions and behaviors align with what we’ve said. SAP Concur has its own version of this when we honor our coworkers for Keeping The Promise. Being an LGBTQ+ ally is no different, especially when it comes to allyship in the workplace. The Dalai Lama may have said it best when he said, ‘It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.
What is an ally?
If you Google what it means to be an LGBTQ+ ally you’ll get a multitude of results. The definition may be vague or specific, all-encompassing or narrow in scope, and may even be colored with encouragement or chastisement. In the most basic terms an ally is someone in alliance with a certain party who has a personal commitment to benefiting that party yet is not a member of the party themselves. In modern terms an ally is typically someone who fights oppression and prejudice by using their own privilege and position to push progress. You will frequently see allies in the workplace supporting minority groups like women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color.
Luckily, anyone can be an ally. However, this isn’t necessarily an easy task. True allyship cannot be self-defined; if our efforts and actions are not recognized or appreciated by the people we’re seeking to help, then we are not truly being an ally. Allyship requires us to walk the walk, keep the promise, and act out of compassion. Without action our words exist only in theory, swirling around computer screens and email threads but never making a difference for the groups we’ve claimed to support.
Why are allies important?
People who support or work as LGBTQ+ advocates allow individuals to feel comfortable being themselves. You might be surprised to hear that according to research done by the Human Rights Campaign almost half (46%) of LGBTQ+ workers in 2018 said they were closeted (not ‘out’ as LGBTQ+) at work. Interestingly, 24% of employees in 2018 who came out at work made the decision because of the strong network of allies that had their back. At a company like SAP Concur, where bringing your authentic self to work is vitally important to the health of the organization, it’s clear that the presence of allies makes all the difference.
We spend approximately one-third of our lives at work. This means we spend about the same amount of time with our colleagues talking, sharing, collaborating and producing results. We are all here trying to be our most productive selves. For LGBTQ+ employees, feeling the need to hide certain parts of themselves at work – weekend plans, favorite hangout spots, special relationship milestones – creates tension and even anxiety. Compiled daily, these tensions turn into reduced productivity, lower retention rates for the company, and above all, a terrible feeling about coming to work for LGBTQ+ employees. When an ally creates the space for open and non-judgmental dialogue, especially in front of other non-LGBTQ+ coworkers, these tensions are eased, employees feel supported, and coming to work becomes a pleasant and welcoming experience.
Allies also play the important role of magnifying the voices of marginalized groups. Because of the inherent privileges that come with being in the majority (more access to leadership, less fear of discrimination or retribution, sheer volume of voices) allies have the unique ability to make the needs of the marginalized more visible to the eyes (and ears) of important decision-makers. Although LGBTQ+ workers can, and have, done the incredibly brave job of fighting for things like inclusive healthcare practices, pay equality, a diverse candidate pipeline and much more at work, the process can be made quicker, easier, and more impactful with the help of allies.
How can I be an ally at work?
Luckily for us there are infinite ways to be an ally at work. Some behaviors and actions may be more impactful than others, and no one can be the real judge of that except the person or group you’re trying to help. There are steps you can take to be a better ally to those around you and no first step is better than asking your supported what you can do for them. Then, go out and do it.
Here are some specific ways in which you can be an ally at work. (If you already are an ally, these suggestions can also help you become a better and more meaningful ally.):
- Gendered greetings are deeply ingrained in the US, but not all of us prefer the traditional male or female gender binary. Unless you’re totally sure of someone’s gender try using a more gender-neutral greeting at work. This excludes greetings like ‘Hey guys’, or, ‘How’s it going ladies?’. Using more neutral terms like ‘folks’ helps everyone feel welcome and allows space for all types of gender expression to flow freely. Additionally, use preferred pronouns and names appropriately and remind your coworkers to do the same.
- Educate yourself on LGBTQ+ issues. Paying special attention to what’s happening on a local, state and national level shows you care about your affected coworkers and friends. Also, by staying abreast of current events you will be acutely aware of issues the LGBTQ+ community is experiencing in real time, which can indicate rough times when it might be necessary to show extra compassion.
- As you educate yourself on social, economic and legislative LGBTQ+ issues, empower yourself to act upon what you’ve learned and advocate for your marginalized coworkers in the workplace. Are they receiving health benefits specific to their unique needs? If not, consider changing that. Is diversity, specifically LGBTQ+, included in onboarding for new hires? If not, see if you can make that happen.
- Join an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees. If you don’t already have one in your office, consider teaming up with your LGBTQ+ work community and creating one. Leveraging the power of many with a unified vision can help you reach big goals.
- Speak up when you hear something unacceptable. You have the strength and ability to call out individuals who make jokes, slights, or have indecent conversations that negatively impact our LGBTQ+ coworkers. You can talk to HR if necessary. The only way to create a safe environment is to take a stand against intolerable behavior.
- Learn about your implicit biases and acknowledge them. Whether due to nature or nurture we all have implicit and subconscious biases that we carry around daily. However, awareness of our own biases allows us to check ourselves and make sure that we aren’t acting on these biases and carrying out behaviors solely because they align with a certain bias.
- Amplify the voices of our LGBTQ+ coworkers and leaders in meetings and over email.
- Ensure that every conversation and relationship you’re apart of feels like an open and welcome space for all LGBTQ-identifying folks to join. This means really analyzing what you say and who you say it with to make sure any LGBTQ+ employee would be comfortable in that space.
Lastly, be visible and open about your allyship. Support cannot live in the dark or in our comfort zones. Although pride stickers and rainbow flags don’t automatically make you an ally, they can go a long way in showing you are proud to stand behind your LGBTQ+ community. When someone comments or asks about your support, use it as a jumping off point to explain your passion around allyship and its importance. You may even provide further resources to empower your non-LGBTQ+ coworkers to educate themselves about allyship.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the actions you can take to be an ally. There are many online resources, books, movies, news sites, and more where you can find information on how to be the best ally you can be. Remember that ‘ally’ is not just a noun but a verb - it takes consistent effort and you may, at times, find yourself in the spotlight of some uncomfortable situations. Using the examples above and additional resources on websites like PFLAG, the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN and the National Center for Transgender Equality you can equip yourself with the necessary tools for becoming a better ally and supporting the LGBTQ+ workplace community in a way that is most impactful to them.
Being an ally is not always easy, but it is always worth it.
Katie Sears is a former global enablement program manager for SAP Concur.