Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
I recently saw an article in Human Resource Executive online that shared “More employers add Juneteenth as a paid holiday this year”. I think this is great. I love the discussion about the significance of Juneteenth as a day of remembrance.
But at the same time I was happy about Juneteenth being recognized, I saw an article in Harvard Business Review titled “Don’t Let Your Calendar Dictate Your DEI Initiatives”. And I could see the point, we want to be a good ally all year long, not just during a designated day, week, or month.
I believe that organizations – and individuals for that matter – are trying to become better allies, but don’t always know the best way to do it. So, I thought it would be great to share some practical suggestions for being a better ally for workplace diversity and inclusion.
To help us understand a little more, I reached out to friend and colleague Eric Peterson, MSOD, an educator and speaker on inclusion and diversity. I’ve known Eric for years and always appreciated his practical approach to issues. I’m thrilled that he agreed to share his knowledge with us.
Eric, thanks so much for being here. As I mentioned, many organizations want to be an ally. I can’t help but think that organizations and individuals would be better at it if they knew their “why”. I know that’s an overused phrase, but is that a good place to start? And if so, how can organization’s find their “why” when it comes to being a better ally?
[Peterson] I agree; I think it’s an excellent place to start. And, this is a question it’s possible to get wrong. Unfortunately, I think most organizations will find their ‘why’ in their balance sheets. They believe that by having a reputation for allyship will improve their brand and increase their revenues. And while that might certainly happen, it can also backfire.
Marginalized people (both employees and customers) will often sense when an organization’s ‘why’ has nothing to do with honoring their humanity. This was especially apparent recently when Wal-Mart made an embarrassing and costly mistake by issuing a ‘Juneteenth’ flavored ice cream. It was very clear that this holiday, which has been observed by the Black community for over a century, was just another three-day weekend to anyone who worked on that product launch. So, if your ‘why’ is misplaced, it’s liable to cost you in some way.
We’ve mentioned Juneteeth a couple of times. There have been other recognition events / holidays recently like Pride Month, Black History Month, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I think it’s great that we have these events because we can use them as opportunities to learn more. But I also feel like we should be learning all the time. How can organizations keep the spirit of these events in our minds for more than a day or a month?
[Peterson] First of all, I want to be very clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing calendar events like the ones you mention. But those are items for your marketing and branding folks, or perhaps your internal communications team. HR and Diversity practitioners need to be looking at policies, programs, and culture. They should be using the calendar-based events to highlight their work or announce new strategies, but not much more. No Black employee, for example, wants to work for a company that only seems to appreciate their value in February.
Let’s continue this conversation about events. Another aspect that I’d love to get your thoughts on is how we celebrate. For instance, many organizations during Pride Month post rainbows. I’m not anti-rainbow, but is posting a rainbow really enough? I assume not. If organizations are truly serious about their allyship, what should they be doing?
[Peterson] As a gay man myself, I love a rainbow flag. Seeing it helps me feel seen in a way that’s very profound.
And, an organization that turns their corporate logo into a big rainbow every June for Pride Month but doesn’t offer trans-inclusive healthcare in their benefit packages doesn’t have nearly as much credibility to my mind as an organization who ‘walks the walk’, so to speak. I’m a Netflix subscriber, and I love the way LGBT films are highlighted with their own special section every June. But it’s also clear to me that those films don’t go away in July; they’re still available to me in September when the movies that celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month are grouped together on the top of my Home screen. Netflix has found a way to use the calendar to show all their subscribers their commitment to entertain a diverse customer base all year long.
I’m going to play contrarian for a moment. I can see some organizations saying that they don’t want to participate in recognition events because they’re afraid they’re going to miss a celebration. Like “We posted something for Black History Month, but we forgot National Hispanic Heritage Month! Maybe we need to stop doing these recognitions because we’re going to hurt someone by accidentally forgetting them.” How do we help organizations genuinely focused on being a better ally?
[Peterson] There’s always next year. If your Hispanic/Latino employee base is important to you (Hint: the correct answer here is “yes”), and if your Hispanic/Latino customer base is a significant one (either “yes” or “potential yes”), then make some plans for next September and October now. BTW – Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated between September 15 & October 14.
But again, if your focus on these valuable employees and customers doesn’t matter to you outside of Hispanic Heritage Month, you have much bigger problems than forgetting to honor the month. In fact, you might be better off postponing your festivities until the year after next until you have a story to tell that you’re proud of.
- What do your Black and Hispanic employees need to experience equity and belonging at your organization?
- What could they get from your competitors that they don’t get from you?
- Why should Black and Hispanic customers choose you over the competition?
- Why are so many of them choosing your competition over you?
Those are the questions HR and DEI needs to focus on.
Last question. I know you do a lot of diversity and inclusion training and workshops. Should organizations consider allyship as part of their DEI initiatives? If so, do you see it being addressed in the context of a program? Meaning is it a standalone program or something that’s woven into all aspects of DEI…or a bit of both?
[Peterson] There are some very progressive DEI practitioners who don’t like to talk too much about allyship; they say that it centers on the person with privilege rather than the marginalized person in need of equity. I can appreciate that viewpoint, but I also believe that there are lots of well-intentioned folks in our workplaces who want to be better allies to people of color, women, LGBT people, people with disabilities, etc., and simply don’t know how.
I think that teaching allyship behaviors in organizations is a great idea, especially if the behaviors stress the fact that allies don’t hog the spotlight, but rather amplify the voices of others. Being an ally is not about calling attention to oneself but increasing opportunities for all (but especially those for whom opportunity is typically denied).
- If an organization used Pride Month to remind folks to respect others’ pronouns and refrain from asking transgender colleagues inappropriate questions, that’s great.
- If Black History Month was used to remind people that natural hair styles are just as ‘professional’ as any other, fine.
- If your organization’s core values include words like ‘diversity” or ‘respect’, defining those words with observable behaviors is a great idea, and using the performance assessment process to give feedback on those observable behaviors is even better.
The truth is, every employee in your organization has some kind of privilege, and could become a better ally to someone with a bit of awareness and practice – so no, I don’t think helping your people on that path is ever a bad thing.
Okay, I lied. Just one more question. When we started this conversation about allyship, we did not have the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. I can see people wanting some guidance about being an ally right now – in the context of legislation and the law. If you were doing a training session right now and the topic came up, could you share 1-2 suggestions that would be helpful?
[Peterson] Since the Dobbs decision was published, several of my friends who live in blue states have been wondering what they can do, individually. Many are thinking about letting women who need to travel to get reproductive healthcare a free place to stay and are wondering if they should set up an Airbnb account. So … Airbnb, if you’re listening — helping my friends offer their homes to women in need is something you could do, if you choose to.
I’ve heard of organizations that, ever since the Dobbs document was first leaked, communicated to all staff that reproductive healthcare would be covered no matter what happens to their benefit plan. Others have informed their staff that they will cover all travel expenses incurred in order to obtain an abortion, for staff who work in states where abortions will be banned.
Of course, one thing that all organizations could do is stop supporting anti-choice candidates for political office and send their money only to those who support a woman’s right to choose. Of course, these actions would not only demonstrate allyship, but they would also make good business sense, as employed adults would prefer to live in a state where abortion is legal and accessible, and women who do not have access to abortion care are three times as likely to leave the workforce. But so often, the values case of diversity and business case point to the exact same behaviors, and that is certainly the case here.
I want to thank Eric for sharing his knowledge and insights with us. If you want to contact Eric about diversity and inclusion education, the best way to reach him is via LinkedIn.
My big takeaway from today’s conversation with Eric is being a good ally is about action. From an organizational perspective, that means companies need to have policies that support their talk about the importance of DEI. And on an individual level, it means the same thing. It’s great to post frustrations on social media about injustices. I’m not saying you should stop. But it also means backing up the talk with action when it comes to getting involved in the political process. Do your homework. Get educated on the issues. And go vote!
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Gainesville, FL20