The construction company Wates has recently published a report on Allyship in the Workplace, as part of its commitment to creating a more inclusive working environment for all of its employees.
The report surveyed over 5,000 employees and identified a number of hurdles facing employees from minority groups including: absence of public advocacy, lack of education around their experiences at all levels, and being subjected to microaggressions at work.
This blog will explore the concept of allyship in the workplace, and how employers can create a culture where it is supported.
What is allyship?
In 2021, Dictionary.com named “allyship” as its word of the year, having seen a surge in the number of searches for the term. It describes allyship as being “the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalised or politicised group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view”.
So allyship is the quality or practice of supporting people with different, historically underrepresented characteristics, with the aim of easing the burden on those individuals to advocate for themselves and to create a culture of inclusivity.
Within the workplace, allyship can take place both at an organisational or cultural level and within individual interactions between staff and clients.
The Wates report found that although 67 per cent of employees would claim to be an ally to those with different identities from their own, this is not translating into action: only 21 per cent of people have mentored or opted to be mentored by a minority colleague, 70 per cent have never publicly given credit to a minority colleague for their ideas and 79 per cent have never advocated for new opportunities for minority colleagues.
This means that perhaps despite good intentions, employees with minority characteristics are not receiving active support from their colleagues in the workplace.
Why is allyship seen as important?
Proponents of allyship see it as being essential to the equality and inclusion of organisations.
For employers, there are obvious legal reasons why this is important, since (of course) employers are under a number of legal obligations in relation to staff from minority groups. The main statutory obligations are in the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful to discriminate or harass individuals with protected characteristics in the workplace. Discussions over the extension of rights in this respect, as far as harassment is concerned, make this all the more of a live topic.
We have written extensively about the Equality Act in previous blogs (see for example Banter, harassment and the Equality Act: an overview for employers), so I won’t repeat that detail here. However, for the purposes of allyship, it is important to note the requirement on employers to protect people from victimisation. This not only includes those who raise complaints of discrimination themselves, but also those who support them.
At common law, employers also owe a duty to their employees to take reasonable care of their health, safety, and welfare, including protecting staff from harassment and providing communication channels for employees to raise concerns.
However, the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion of course goes further than purely legal obligations. Much has been written about the moral imperative and the value of diversity to organisations: it has been shown to increase innovation, promote staff morale and reduce turnover, and lead to higher revenue growth, to name but a few. As such, diversity has increasingly become a top priority for organisations when implementing their ESG strategies (for more on which see our blogs: ESG in the workplace and ESG: top tips for employers).
What can employers do to promote allyship?
The culture of an organisation determines what gets done and – importantly – how. While the impact of a poor culture cannot be overestimated, a positive workplace culture has the potential to attract and retain a diverse workforce and encourage collaboration and allyship among employees.
To achieve this, it is important that the values of an organisation are “lived” at all levels, but particularly through the conduct of leaders and senior staff. This is the backdrop against which staff will judge both the appropriateness of their own behaviour, and their ability to speak up for others.
Consider involving staff in establishing values: employers may wish to consider using a staff survey or culture review to establish views of employees. Look also at your workplace’s vulnerabilities – this could be particular groups of people, working patterns, and even social events. An important part of demonstrating organisational allyship is the policies which are in place to support colleagues with minority characteristics.
By putting in place clear policies and encouraging employees to make use of the support available, you can help to create a stronger culture of allyship in your workplace.
The Wates report found that only one third of employees have spoken up when they perceived discrimination or exclusion of a minority colleague.
To encourage allyship, consider whether your employees feel both safe and empowered to speak out and what channels are in place to facilitate this. Establish clear standards of expected behaviour, along with policies and procedures which outline how an employee can report harmful comments or behaviour. Being clear that anyone who raises a concern in good faith will be protected from detriment (and ensuring this is reflected in practice) is essential for creating a safe and ethical workplace.
However, it is important not to go too far: earlier this year, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) consulted on whether to introduce a “requirement” on junior staff in law firms to challenge behaviour which falls short of treating colleagues “fairly and with respect”. Ultimately, the SRA decided this requirement could cause undue anxiety for junior colleagues, so will instead focus on encouraging individuals at all levels to challenge unfair treatment. Managers though will be required to challenge unfair treatment.
One of the possible reasons for the failure to advocate for minority colleagues identified in the report is a lack of education. Only 37 per cent of respondents had taken the time to educate themselves on the experiences of minorities, and this figure falls to 33 per cent among C-level executives.
Equality and diversity training should be more than a “tick box” exercise and should be held regularly to avoid going “stale”. As well as encouraging individuals to reflect on their own privileges and biases, consider supporting them to learn about different backgrounds and cultures.
Inevitably, this blog is only a brief introduction to the idea of allyship. There are many resources available for organisations wishing to learn more about allyship and diversity and inclusion more generally. However, to get you started our Diversity and Inclusion Manager has compiled the following list of useful resources:
- Closing the Gap: 5 steps to creating an inclusive culture (Teresa Boughey)
- Inclusive Leadership: The definitive guide to developing and executing an impactful diversity and inclusion strategy (Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick)
- DEI Deconstructed: Your no-nonsense guide to doing the work and doing it right (Lily Zheng)
- The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace (Shereen Daniels)
If you would like to discuss anything arising from this blog, please do get in touch.
With many thanks to Emily Waterhouse, a current trainee in our Employment team, for her help in preparing this blog.
If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact Rachel Lewis or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, December 2022