‘Action’ Is Operative Word for Workplace Allyship

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek November 1, 2021
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allies

​The jig is up.

Employees expect their organizations to do more than merely say they value diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). They want action, said Sonia Aranza, CEO and principal consultant at Aranza Communications in Alexandria, Va.

She spoke during the concurrent session "Allyship: How to Recognize and Disrupt Bias" at SHRM INCLUSION 2021, held recently in Austin, Texas, and virtually. She also is an executive instructor for the diversity executive program at Howard University School of Business in Washington, D.C.

[Jump to Aranza's do's and don'ts of authentic allyship.]

Aranza served seven years as the director of constituent relations for Congress, where she played a key role in providing access to underserved community groups and was a founding member of a congressional staff organization that built coalitions to support legislation impacting human rights and diverse communities.

"Saying you value DE&I and justice is no longer enough. The jig is up," she told attendees. "You can't just make official statements. Allyship is your commitment to take action. That's the operative word right there: Action."

Growing up in her native Hawaii, Aranza said, she was aware as a child that volcanic activity percolating below the earth's surface could burst forth at any time—much like the building societal tensions that have erupted in recent years.

"There is heightened awareness [now]," she said, "and there is no delineation between what's happening in society and what's happening in the workplace because the workplace is a microcosm of society. People don't live separate lives."

The pandemic opened people's eyes to xenophobia and systemic racism, she noted, "and yet they were there all along: hatred for people that don't look like the majority; hatred for people who look like they don't belong. Yet, if we are good citizens of history, xenophobia has been here since the beginning of our beloved nation."

Aranza urged attendees to learn to recognize and disrupt bias, which manifests as microinequities and microaggressions. These small gestures, actions or comments make an individual feel devalued.

"They're like little papercuts," she said. "There's a cumulative effect to all of this," and the impact is "as harmful as overt discrimination," affecting an employee's morale, productivity, emotional psychology and well-being."

SHRM Resource Hub Page
Overcoming Workplace Bias

"Allyship is courageous action. It really is," Aranza said. "I've been in too many spaces where the opportunity is there to take action, but the courage is absent." She asked attendees if they are:

  • Conducting a culture audit of your organization?
  • Inviting an outside expert to lead workplace focus groups?
  • Taking an inventory of unwritten rules? She recalled one organization where promotions and favored assignments were based on an invitation-only hunting trip, where bonds were forged and relationships were built. "As a result, that is where they get the candidates for certain positions," she explained to the audience. "That is stunning. And trust me, there may be some unwritten rules, unwritten advantages happening in your company."
  • Providing allyship leadership training for supervisors and managers? "Ultimately," she said, "it's the responsibility of institutions and leaders in positions of power to dismantle inequities."

Aranza also shared the following do's and don'ts of authentic allyship:      

  • DO commit to learning about the history of various groups.

    Asian-Pacific Americans have been subjected throughout U.S. history to laws that shut them out, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. "Their history did not begin when you discovered them," Aranza pointed out. "We need to seek input from the people [we] wish to ally with."

    Education extends to having a better understanding of the issues faced by diverse groups. If you want to be an ally to women or people of color, for example, learn about the barriers they face in the workplace.

    "Allyship requires humility. It requires learning. It's an ongoing practice of learning and sometimes making mistakes."

  • DO educate yourself on issues as they arise.
  • DO practice humility and cultivate genuine empathy.

    "Have you ever had to edit yourself every time you had to go to work?" she asked attendees. "Empathy is you putting yourself in someone's shoes. We've got to get out of our own dang shoes."

  • DO examine your privilege(s) and use it to help.

    There are times when your race, gender or another identity marker puts you in a position of privilege and allows you to be an ally to others.

  • DO take a stand without waiting for others.

    "Too often, the opportunities are there, but the courage is missing. We're looking left and right; who's going to go? Go."

  • DO recognize that allyship is for the long haul, "not just when it's in vogue."
  • DON'T wait to show support until others call you out for not doing so.
  • DON'T express solidarity without taking action. "In the current socio-political climate, .... I've never [before] seen a flood of statements come out and, regrettably, without action" other than to elevate the social media profile or company brand.
  • DON'T fall prey to "virtue signaling" by waving around receipts or other "proofs of your virtue."
  • DON'T make your involvement a knee-jerk reaction; "all the other companies are doing it, so we better do it, too."

Plant your feet, Aranza urged attendees, and "take your warrior stance." 


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