How to Be an "Ally" to an ERG

Do you listen or you always got something to say?

And do you say something when you notice injustice?

— Substantial of Bop Alloy, “Universe Works”

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In September of 2016, an email landed in my inbox from the lead of my company’s Employee Resource Group for Black employees. It was a familiar refrain: two Black men and one Black boy had been shot and killed by police officers within the span of 5 days. She addressed the group directly, acknowledging the resulting pain within the community and creating a space for people to organize and respond in support of one another.

Even though I’m a welcome member of this resource group, I was not the target audience for this email. But looking back, I’m aware of just how powerful it was to be privy to this conversation. It was important to me as a human being, sure, but professionally speaking, this glimpse into the effects of these incidents was a total necessity. It’s my job to get the most out of my employees every day and to provide them with an environment where they can bring their whole selves to work. With several Black team members in the org I led, this information was essential in informing how I would show up for them.

LEVERAGING YOUR EMPLOYEE RESOURCE GROUPS 

I often tell managers that cultural awareness is your job. Not only do you have to be open to learning about the values and struggles of your employees who are different from you, but you should be intentional about getting a majority of this info from your own sources. Who do you follow on Twitter (is it only dudes)? Which authors do you read (are they all white)? In fact, who are you even friends with (hint: white people)? Inclusive managers take the time to educate themselves so that they can show up for their employees, especially when their employees may not know how to process things that are affecting them or how to ask for your accommodation and help. 

Before I even saw the email, I knew about the incidents she was referencing. How could I miss them? They had been plastered throughout my social media and news feeds for days. I already had an idea of the way many of my Black friends felt as they walked sullenly into their workplaces only to be met with cheerful pleasantries from oblivious coworkers. But witnessing firsthand what this meant for my coworkers and my team members helped me understand my responsibility to them.

As you think about all the ways you can build your cultural awareness, you should also consider taking advantage of the groups that likely already exist within your own company. 90% of Fortune 500 companies have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and chances are, your company has these too. Typically, these groups form around a specific identity (e.g. groups for Black, LGBTQ+, or Veteran employees), and membership is almost always welcome to people outside of this identity group. I personally belong to every ERG at my company; I don’t attend most of their meetings, but I do read their slack channels and emails, and I occasionally show up to their events. Some of their discussions introduce me to new authors or media, and sometimes topics come up that I want to discuss with my friends (including my good friend, Google). When the situation calls for it, I use information I gather from these groups to act.

As your awareness grows, so should your sense of duty.

In the situation I referenced above, the initial email was the perfect conversation starter. I forwarded it to our engineering management team and asked that they be particularly cognizant of what their Black employees may be experiencing, along with some tips on how to delicately approach the subject. I also used it as an opportunity to reach out to my own team members, along the lines of: “Hey, I saw this thread and I wanted to reach out. Just letting you know I’m here if you want to talk about anything.” (Lara Hogan has a fabulous blog post on dealing with these types of situations, which has become a staple in my communications with managers.) As your awareness grows, so should your sense of duty.

 

PARTICIPATE RESPONSIBLY

Before I go any further, know that many people are rightfully horrified when I make the suggestion that managers join the ERGs at their company. I get it, because I too have had enough of fake “allies”. People who can talk a big game but don’t act when it counts, people who expect me to drag out my trauma and experiences for their own edification, and people who want to make a show out of their support for me are all officially off my Christmas card list. In fact it’s difficult for me to read my opening story and not feel like there’s something a bit exploitative about the whole thing. But it’s possible to be a responsible participant, in a way that can benefit both you as a manager and the groups you’re a part of. Below, I’ve outlined some basic positive behaviors and pitfalls in allyship, for anyone wishing to join your company’s ERGs as an outside participant. I hope you find it useful when determining how to best engage with your coworkers.

 

AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT THE WORD “ALLY”

[‘Ally’ is] not an identity. It’s a practice.
— Mia McKenzie, blackgirldangerous.com

I’m breaking a huge personal rule I have in writing this blog post. Ally is not a title you get to claim, even if someone else bestows it on you. Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous points out, “‘Ally’ cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.” 

Nonetheless, ally is the most common term I’ve heard to refer to those who join ERGs outside of their personal demographic or identification (i.e. “This group is for LGBTQ+ employees and their allies”), so I’ve resigned myself to using it in this setting. But that means that if your intention is to join a group as an ally, you should learn what it means to really be one (and IMO, you should refrain from calling yourself one in any other context).

ALLYSHIP IN EMPLOYEE RESOURCE GROUPS

What is an ally?

An ally is someone who takes responsibility for fighting against inequality and injustice as if the struggle were their own. To translate this definition to allyship within an ERG, they are people who advocate for a fair and just experience for the employees who share a common identity with the group.

When is an ally’s attendance welcome?

Generally speaking, ERG meetings and events are open to all members. Not only is this likely a legal requirement at your company, but it is also important to have the support of people whose identities are outside of the ERG's target community in order to affect change. That being said, an ally should read the room and understand the best way to engage. I personally make the following suggestions:

  • Use your judgment and/or confirm with a group lead if you think there’s a chance your presence would disrupt a necessary safe space.

  • If a limited number of seats are available for an event the group is hosting, defer your spot to other group members until you’re sure there’s enough space for allies. Ask to be added to the waitlist or offer to create one before signing up!

  • Offer to help. Can you check people in, help with setup and teardown, or arrange food and drink options? If the latter, please be cognizant of the vendors you’re choosing and support businesses that align with the group’s mission. Your groups may have a list of preferred and banned vendors -- if they don’t, this is a great thing to start in conjunction with other ERGs!

  • Cede the floor; this isn’t about you, your experiences, or your allyship. Do not center yourself in a meeting, and I mean that literally as much as I mean it figuratively. I won’t take a seat at the center table if it looks like the meeting will fill up. I limit my contributions to suggestions or context that the group might find helpful.

  • Support your people! Many of your team members belong to ERGs (and if they don’t, you should make sure they are aware of how to join). Take an interest and support them in their participation. If they’re part of a panel discussion or they are organizing an event, show your face so they know you’re aligned with their values.

What makes a great ally to an ERG?

A great ally does all of the following:

  • recognizes that true allyship is a continuous process of education and self reflection

  • uses their power and influence to speak to an audience that other members of the group may lack access to (this is especially important for managers!)

  • educates themselves by listening and doing their own research

  • opens up spaces without taking them over

  • reflects honestly on their own participation in oppressive systems, even (or especially) when it’s unintentional

  • recognizes, but does not apologize for, their privilege, and uses that privilege to support marginalized or underrepresented co-workers, regardless of whether those co-workers choose to participate in this ERG

  • contributes their useful thoughts and opinions but defers decisions to the group

  • believes and respects the lived experiences of others

  • advocates for the needs of the group and for those who lack the safety to voice their needs, but does not presume to speak on behalf of a community they don’t belong to

  • holds their peers accountable for words and actions that are biased and offensive, and that may affect members of this ERG

  • publicly gives credit and praise for the work of their marginalized or underrepresented colleagues (doing so with intention can signal to other team members that it’s safe for them to participate too!)

Common pitfalls in allyship (from someone who's made a few mistakes)

Acknowledge that being worthy of the term “ally” is challenging and constant work. You can and will make mistakes, and that's okay! All that's expected is that you take ownership of your actions and learn from your mistakes. We are all in this together!

Still, there are some common pitfalls you'll want to avoid:

  • Assuming everyone feels oppressed or experiences oppression in the same way

    • People are different, and people within an ERG will respond differently to words and situations. Avoid making assumptions at all costs and be open to everyone's viewpoint.

  • Comparing your own experience with the experiences of your peers

    • Most of us can point to a time where we felt isolated, marginalized, or disadvantaged. Those feelings are completely valid and should provide you with empathy and perspective. However, presuming your experiences mirror the experiences of others fails to acknowledge the systems that benefit you. Furthermore, it ignores that injustice takes on additional forms when one identifies with more than one marginalized identity group (this is known as Intersectionality). Instead of "I know how you feel", try "I identify with you" or “This resonates with me.”

  • Expecting to be taught

    • You will learn a lot simply by bearing witness to your peers. But ERGs do not exist solely to educate allies, and you'll want to be cognizant of when and where you ask for more information. If you ask a question, accept that the answer may be "it's too much to get into right now, but there's a lot of research on this topic." Ask Google first. Ask an ally in the ERG second. Ask your friends in the ERG third. Ask the group last.

  • Expressing feelings of guilt or shame for situations beyond your control

    • You don't have to feel bad for benefiting from privilege. You don't have to apologize for others’ behavior or feel ashamed about your lack of knowledge. By doing the work of an ally, you educate yourself and your peers, and you influence change within existing systems to benefit everyone equally.

  • Refusing to call out injustice when you see it

    • Perhaps the most important: your colleagues need your vocal support. If you see injustice at home or at work, point it out. It will mean a lot coming from you.

  • Thinking you lack a platform for creating change

    • You may think that there's not much you can do unless you’re a hiring manager, a team lead, or someone who's in charge of HR and Recruiting processes. This couldn't be further from the truth! You can educate yourself and others, you can speak up for your friends in ERGs, you can point out bias when you see it. The more allies who speak up, the more power the ERG has as a group.

  • Allowing yourself to be complacent or silent simply because talking about race/gender/religion/etc feels hard

    • This page contains a long list of things to do and an equally long list of things that can go wrong. Many people freeze up when discussing these topics because they don't want to say the wrong thing. Furthermore, because inequality is systemic, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. However, "silence is violence." Start by asking how you can help (and by reading Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race).

  • Assuming your good intentions absolve you of harm

    • At some point, despite all of your good intentions, you may inadvertently say or do something that is hurtful or simply uninformed. When called out, the natural response is to feel defensive and/or withdraw from the group, because of course you didn't mean any harm! Instead of defending and withdrawing, the proper response is to say you're sorry. Sit with the discomfort for a while and see if you can understand why your message wasn't well received. Do some research and ask your fellow allies for perspective. Once you have a better understanding, let others know what you learned. We can all learn from each other's mistakes, and we earn trust when we’re more transparent about our blind spots.

Resources:

Major props to Anais Farges, who inspired me to write this all down and even seeded some of the initial language.

Rest in Peace to Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, and Tyre King