How to create meaningful allyship at your organization

Mean it.
Mean it.
Image: REUTERS/Henry Romero
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Allyship is a word we hear a lot of these days. In fact, at Hootsuite we found that the term has been mentioned almost 1 million times across social media channels in the last year.

That’s commensurate with the recent traumas we have felt and witnessed, particularly in vulnerable communities that need more allies. Along with the pandemic came the police killings that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, calls for accountability from a history of colonization, marginalization, and violence against Indigenous peoples, and much more.

Allyship cannot stop now. By definition, acting in allyship is an active, ongoing practice. It involves the incredibly difficult work of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.

For many of us trying to make sense of the past year and a half, the way we think about the role of employers and colleagues has changed forever. It’s been a time of learning but also an important time of unlearning the past. When I hear of companies going back to “normal” in any way shape or form, I worry for their employees and for society. The learnings from the past year cannot and should not be taken for granted or ignored.

Whether your company is starting from scratch or diving deeper into an allyship journey already embarked upon, here are nine ways you can think about catalyzing meaningful change within your organization.

1. Go beyond unconscious bias training and focus on structures first

Unconscious bias training is critical. But there is more to this journey than changing people. It is about tearing down, adding, or changing your structures. Think about this work as assembling a building. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders are builders who, with the help of architects and engineers (industry experts and partners), are creating a building that will outlast their time at an organization.

One critical component to getting help on the architecture of DEI programs is to lean on consultants and partners. Ensure that you are not asking your underrepresented groups to take on the emotional labor of educating, designing, or helping you without paying them for it.

2. Measure (and respond to) employee sentiment and needs to retain your underrepresented talent

Understanding where you are is critical to understanding where you are going. Focus first on retaining your underrepresented talent before trying to attract new talent.

  • Survey your people to know what your underrepresented populations are, how they feel, and what they need.
  • Survey again. And again. You need to be measuring on an ongoing basis. This includes talent pipelines, promotions, departures, etc.

3. Bake diversity, equity, and inclusion into your hiring process

It’s essential to think about the employee journey from the very beginning of the candidate phase. When we think about the employee lifecycle as something that starts before someone is even hired with an organization, we realize that there are some great ways to ensure DE&I is baked into the hiring process.

  • Ensure that your hiring decisions are not made solely by one person—they should be collaborative. Have diverse hiring panels to mitigate bias in your hiring process.
  • Update your job descriptions to appeal to candidates from underrepresented groups by using inclusive (i.e. non-gendered) language, stating specific and objective competency-based qualifications, and clearly differentiating between required and desired qualifications. Removing years of experience from job descriptions is another critical step in being more inclusive.
  • Work with third parties to help diversify candidate pools and train employees who will be evaluating candidates.

4. Don’t make allyship an HR-exclusive responsibility

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are infinite journeys that by now should be table stakes in every organization. But it’s allyship that plays the most crucial role in ensuring these efforts aren’t limited to the HR department.

HR leaders often are made the owners of DEI initiatives. However, it’s a team sport. To make sure it’s seen that way:

  • Ensure that your words and actions are aligned.
  • Assess whether you’re ready to be an ally without the recognition that comes with performative forms of allyship.
  • Remember that each and every person in an organization is responsible for creating and upholding an equitable workplace—and that the work is never done.

5. Unlearn what no longer serves your people

Unlearning something means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and confronting ugly truths. To start or continue the unlearning process within your organization, cultivate a culture that empowers employees to speak up and discuss issues of allyship.

  • Raise employees’ awareness about the practice of unlearning unconscious bias in the workplace and in society.
  • In meetings, recognize bias and speak up.
  • If possible, hire a DEI strategy firm to keep you accountable and help with goal setting.

6. Prioritize transparency and discuss your progress openly and often

When organizations openly share and encourage conversation about the results of surveys or third-party audits, we are all reminded that the end goal is not about shiny results. It’s about enacting incremental and consistent progress together.

  • Measure your progress through internal and third-party surveys (surveys conducted anonymously help remove employee fears around sharing truthful feedback with their employer).
  • Share the results from the surveys with employees and articulate how your organization plans on using that data to improve processes and culture.

7. Decenter yourself to elevate others

I often think about how our leaders can provide employees with the tools they need to speak up and share their stories. As a leader, this shouldn’t happen on occasion; it should be a daily practice in virtual meetings, brainstorming sessions, company all-hands meetings and really, at any chance you get.

A great way to advocate for employees in underrepresented groups is by decentering yourself to elevate their visibility.

  • Establish a series where people from inside and outside of your organization can talk about their experiences as a member of an underrepresented group.
  • Focus on programs that give people a strong sense of belonging. Listening sessions are great opportunities for leaders to elevate the voices of unrepresented groups.

8. Listen actively

At Hootsuite, CEO Tom Keiser and I host listening sessions with employees to have open conversations about how we can better support them as an executive team. If you are considering rolling out a listening session series with your executive team:,

  • Remember to sit in on the conversation and experience it without trying to problem-solve. Don’t get carried away with trying to come up with the perfect solution in the moment
  • Focus each session on a different topic or underrepresented group.
  • Use the feedback to fuel how you operate as a leader in the workplace.
  • Provide an ongoing outlet for employees to lean on. Consider creating a council where you can bring together employees and allies from diverse groups with the goal of promoting allyship and strengthening belonging for employees.

9. Remember, mental health is the unseen variable

A key pillar of supporting allyship is supporting the mental health of your people. In 2021, the discussion of benefits and employee wellbeing has become less reactive and more proactive. You can get started on your own benefits overhaul by:

  • Producing meaningful “needs assessments” through surveys, to look closely at which boxes your organization needs to think inside of in the first place.
  • Partnering with an insurer and carrier that helps you differentiate and is willing to enable the journey you are on.
  • Picking a benefits carrier that is flexible and willing to champion your organization’s direction—especially when it comes to breaking new ground and setting new industry standards.

People are the lifeblood of any business and need to be allowed (and encouraged) to bring their entire selves to work. In doing so, they can become better allies to each other. The struggles that people at work are going through are the struggles of the entire organization. A workplace must provide the space, time, and resources employees need to seek solutions and combat those challenges, and take on the simple complexities of life, via effective leadership and mentorship, time off, and flexible benefits.

Societal conversations about racism, bigotry, marginalization, and hate have presented a very raw vulnerability for companies that shine a light on age-old practices that need to be redefined. That can be uncomfortable. But the wonderful thing about vulnerability is that it presents an opportunity for growth and change.