Avoiding Performative Allyship in the Workplace

Key Insights:

  • Avoiding performative allyship is a key part of creating an environment of belonging and inclusivity in the workplace.
  • Practicing allyship involves continuous action and being intentional about showing support throughout the year.
  • To be effective as allies, leaders should educate themselves about their privilege, lived experiences of others, histories of discrimination, and tangible actions that will help advance marginalized communities.

As companies lean into initiatives that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, avoiding performative allyship will be a key part of creating an environment of belonging and inclusivity. The Anti-Oppression Network defines allyship as “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” 

Where allyship focuses on actively advocating or working for change that benefits a marginalized group, performative allyship is more about showing surface-level support without taking any tangible actions. For instance, when companies made public statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, many were called out for being performative because internal practices did not reflect their statements. Rainbow-washing during Pride month or jumping on trending social movements such as #BlackOutTuesday with no substantive follow-up actions are also examples of performative shows of solidarity. 

Disconnects also exist between how individuals choose to show allyship in the workplace and the needs of the communities they claim to support. A 2020 poll by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey found that more than 80% of white women and men said they see themselves as allies to their colleagues of other races and ethnicities. However, only 55% of Latinas and 45% of Black women in the same poll said they had strong allies at work. Furthermore, only 26% of Black women and 25% of Latinas agreed that Black women had strong allies in their workplaces.

For individuals and organizations looking to use their privilege — be it rooted in race, gender, or abilities — to support and uplift underserved communities, a first step is understanding how privilege shows up in the workplace and beyond. In addition, reviewing practices, words, and actions will help ensure steps taken are more effective than performative. 

Practicing Allyship Means Ongoing Action

To practice effective allyship, individuals must recognize that the work of an ally involves ongoing action to advocate for the rights and advancements of marginalized groups. At a recent Kindred workshop, Rae Lindsay, a DE&I professional with G.E.T Phluid, emphasized that the term “ally” is a verb, not an identity. “You’re not considered an ally because you accept the [LGBTQIA+] community; you have to act for the community,” Lindsay said.

In the workplace, this may look like calling out microaggressions or discriminatory behavior, challenging harmful practices, or uplifting the voices of others. According to Racquel Joseph, Chief Experience Officer at Kindred, in a conversation about LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace, building interpersonal relationships, creating safe spaces for others, and providing support and encouragement are also important steps allies can take.

Crucial to these acts of support is the need for allies to commit to year-round involvement, she noted. Heritage months are important periods to highlight, educate, and celebrate the cultures, histories, and innovations of marginalized groups. But true allyship should not be limited to only these months. To avoid practicing performative allyship, allies must go beyond surface-level platitudes to ensure they are tangibly supporting marginalized communities throughout the year.

One way to do this at work, Joseph suggests, is engaging with the activities of employee resource groups (ERGs) wholly. ERGs are often underfunded and under-resourced, making the support of allies important to advance the work of the group. 

“When you go to the [ERG] meetings and you’re sitting there talking about doing the work, if you’re lucky, there will be one ally there, one person who doesn’t identify as part of the community, lending their voice, their influence, [and] support,” she said.

Individuals are often quick to attend social events but don’t show the same level of engagement when content is more educational. “Allies can really be more intentional about making that support year-round and not just during Pride,” she added. 

Education Drives Effective Allyship

Taking action year-round is important, but allies in the workplace must do the work to understand their privilege and how to best uplift the communities they support. This starts with education.

As a member of a privileged group, an ally must commit to continuously learning about the lived experiences of others as well as seeking out opportunities for personal growth and understanding how personal biases and privilege may influence one’s actions in the workplace and beyond.

According to a recent study from Catalyst, allyship and curiosity as the core of a leadership mindset can help move the needle on workplace inclusion. The study found that 68% of people of color were on guard at work to protect against racial bias and unfair treatment. However, when leaders demonstrated curiosity and allyship, employees of color were less on guard about racial bias and more likely to stay at the organization. 

Curiosity, which drives education, should go deeper than general questions about wellbeing. “It’s ongoing and persistent learning about dimensions of difference and marginalization within and outside of work, and about yourself in relation to them,” the study noted. Learning about differences and how discrimination plays out in the workplace and beyond can help leaders enact changes that better support employees of color and remove barriers for inclusion and advancement.

Additionally, allies should take responsibility for their own education without placing the burden of teaching on the marginalized group.

At a recent Kindred Assembly on Gender in 2021, transgender advocate and consultant Cyrus Golestan emphasized that allyship is a lifelong process that involves building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability.

“Ally is a verb, it’s what you do. And I consider it a course of continued education. We always need to keep learning…Allyship is always reminding ourselves what is at stake for other people who we’re trying to be allies for. And it is working to end oppression and to always be aware and keep our privilege in check,” Golestan said. 

Avoiding performative allyship as leaders and employees is key to creating an inclusive workplace environment where employees feel valued and safe. But success requires time and effort and an understanding that an ally must work in lockstep with the community they support. Prioritizing education, committing to year-round action, and leaning into curiosity that drives continuous learning are small steps to take on the journey to being a better ally. 

Dig Deeper

Learn more about how to be a better workplace ally and building an inclusive work environment with the recommended resources below. Kindred members have full access to this exclusive content. Not a member? No worries. Submit your application form here and someone from the team will reach back out to you. 

Urey Onuoha

Published on July 09, 2021