Dear Addi P.,
As an HR leader, I need to clearly define the difference between an ally, an advocate and an activist in order to help make a more inclusive and equitable workplace. How would you go about explaining them?
— Asking in Alaska
Dear Asking in Alaska,
You're off to the right start. Allyship in the workplace begins with understanding the three words you're asking about: ally, advocate and activist. Let's take a look at these terms to help you explain what they mean to your organization and how they pertain to building an inclusive culture at work.
An ally in the workplace is someone who holds a position of privilege and takes action to support an underrepresented group of which they are not a member. Keep in mind that being privileged doesn't necessarily mean that a person comes from a wealthy background. Privilege, as defined by the National Association of School Psychologists, refers to the "unearned advantages that someone receives by identifying or being born into a specific group." People with these advantages "have not earned them by their own hard work but rather their affiliation."
Your employees can act as allies by making efforts to understand the struggles of marginalized groups. Education is key to building a solid foundation for allyship in the workplace, and facilitating a forum for diverse interactions is a way to promote it. For instance, an ally could support a more inclusive environment by scheduling regular meetings involving two or more collections of different people (e.g., social, ethnic or racial groups). Doing so will help achieve a well-rounded discussion of perceptions and experiences that individual groups hold. Allies should set expectations at the beginning of the meeting to ensure all members are respected and have an opportunity to speak without interruption. They should also keep track of who's attending and who's not to ensure inclusion of underrepresented teammates.
Overall, due to their supportive role, allies can help you learn more about your employees on both an individual level and a group level. This can subsequently shape your company policies, initiatives and recruiting processes to better appeal to a broad range of people.
Like a workplace ally, a workplace advocate often utilizes a position of privilege, but rather than just providing support to an underrepresented group, an advocate will defend, write or speak on their behalf to ensure fair and accurate representation.
A good advocate will know each employee's current role and responsibilities as well as their work history, skills and capability for growth. Furthermore, an advocate will help amplify voices to bring attention to injustices and promote change. Advocates listen to employee concerns and work on finding appropriate solutions typically within the confines of company policy. Actions by advocates can be either proactive or reactive and are generally done by communicating directly with the company's key decision makers.
Activists are aware of their community's needs, and have an unwavering commitment to support those needs. They challenge those in authority and take intentional action to bring about public awareness and systemic change. An activist in the workplace can be anyone, and allies and advocates often aide activists in their fight against mutual injustices.
There are many areas of activism. For example, an employee of your company could be an activist for racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, disability rights, animal rights or climate change. In a workplace context, the term "employee activism" is reserved for activists who protest or speak out against their own company. In fact, research shows employee activism is on the rise. Research also indicates nearly 4 in 10 employees say they have spoken out to support or criticize their employers' actions over a social issue.
However, this doesn't mean there is a need to fear activist employees. Instead, embrace their passion and engagement as a positive force to create change.
To better handle employee activism, you can devise an employee activist policy, which will either give permission to or prohibit employees from speaking publicly in opposition to your company. Careful consideration is needed when drafting an effective employee activist policy as it requires thinking through many factors and legalities. For example, public and private companies have different ownership structures and must abide by different rules when handling speech in the workplace.
Overall, as an HR leader, your first priority is to create allyship in the workplace or induce an inclusive culture in which every employee feels accepted, understood and valued. Allies, advocates and activists from within your organization can help build this culture, but it will be up to you to establish an equitable foundation where everyone can thrive.
Hope this helps.
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Addi P. is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form.
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