A workplace ally is a colleague who will help, support and encourage you in the workplace. They will offer you friendship, mentorship and advise whilst listening to your thoughts, opinions and concerns. I’m a workplace ally, in fact a lot of people will fall into this role without even being aware or making a conscious decision to become one. Matthew Smith, Condeco UK Project Manager is a staunch supporter of Diversity and Inclusion and an active member of the LGBTQ+ community identifying as gay.
As a supporter of Diversity and Inclusion he is a major part of the strategy for a future Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee. One of the key elements to having a diversity and inclusion programme is ensuring we have workplace ally’s. Matthew shares his experience and knowledge on ally’s and how they can make a difference within the workplace.
What does being a workplace ally mean to you?
MS: It means I can be my authentic self and not adopt a ‘persona’ or hide a part of my personality. I wasn’t aware of the term until a few years ago. Reflecting on my career, I have naturally sought out allies at work who have given me the confidence to be ‘me’ and be openly ‘out’ in the workplace.
Having an ally makes it easier, because you don’t only come out once, you must make the decision to come out with different teams, new colleagues, clients and suppliers. The security of knowing I have allies within the workplace who actively support me, has helped make me feel I’m part of an inclusive workplace.
“The explicit reason why I champion lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues at Salford is precisely because I’m straight. And that’s a very important message, because if a heterosexual person says ‘I’m leading on this issue because I believe it affects everybody’ then that has a real impact." ~ Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor, Salford University
It takes courage, in a workplace or any other public environment to be yourself, especially when others can easily be judgmental or prejudice. How do you find the strength to be yourself?
MS: There have been times in my career I didn’t find the strength to be myself, in a previous role we took out one of our main clients for lunch. During this meeting, the client assumed that I was straight and had a wife and proceeded to ask me about them. In that moment, I didn’t have the strength to be truthful about my sexuality. For the rest of my collaboration with this client, I had to make a conscious effort to play along with their assumption and the lie which had been crafted.
This played on my mind throughout that client relationship and I felt uncomfortable not being my true self. I worked with this client for a 3-year period and I learnt a big lesson from this, making a conscious decision to always be my true self in the workplace.
“Supporting a diverse workplace isn’t just the morally right thing to do, it has the benefit of making companies stronger and more successful.” ~ Peter Grauer, Chairman of Bloomberg LP
The best way the breakdown stereotypes and myths of people in the LGBTQ+ community (or other communities) is by personally knowing someone. If you don’t know anyone within your social circle, how do you meet people within these communities?
MS: Ask your organisation if they have a network group for LGBTQ+ and join. Become involved in local community organisations or volunteer groups, or attend networking event. There are many fantastic organisations who offer insightful and thought-provoking conversations, such as The Network of Networks.
“At the core of our values is the belief that everyone, independent of sexual orientation and gender identity, deserves the right to feel safe and supported in the workplace. Not only is it the right things to do based on principle, but it’s the right business decision.” ~ Andrew Liveris, Chairman and CEO, Dow Chemical Company
Being an ally isn’t just for one community, can you explain the other groups of individuals who will benefit from a workplace ally?
MS: On the diversity and inclusion journey I am encouraged to see a rise in BAME and Accessibility networks but I have also found that within the LGBTQ+ community, those who identify as trans and bisexual, are in need of allies.
I was shocked to learn 40% of transgender people have attempted to take their own life at some point and discovering this I could no longer remain quiet. I have actively attended panel networks covering trans topics increasing my network and making connections/friends along the way, asking questions, reading blogs and research articles.
I have previously presented to 150 of my peers on being a ‘Trans ally’. Using my social media channels such ‘Twitter’ and ‘LinkedIn’ to raise awareness on trans social matters and supporting days such as ‘Transgender Day of Remembrance’. A key aspect of being ally is to be visible and opening up discussions and debate.
“I am celebrating LGBT Pride Month to honour those who have stood up for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness no matter who we are or who we love.” ~ Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook
How do you become an ally? Is this done at a company level or on an individual basis?
MS: Many of us are allies naturally in our work and personal life. Reflect back, if you have ever stood up and spoken out when you have seen injustice or discrimination, whether it was in the school playground or you stood up for a stranger. You in that moment have been ally and had a positive impact on someone else.
At business level, I have begun to see many companies adopt rainbow lanyards, a visually simple way to show support. Organisations with strong diversity and inclusion programmes are setting up ally networks and training along with guides. Whilst not all organisations will be in a position to have separate allies’ programmes, actively seek out allies if starting a network and ensure you include allies when creating a strategy. Having different perspectives and voices at the table will enhance any strategy.
“The answer is resoundingly clear, diverse companies that also have an inclusive work environment perform better on multiple business dimensions.” ~ Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever
Where can someone go to find out more information about being a workplace ally.
MS: There are many fantastic online resources, The ‘Stonewall’ website is always a great LGBT resource, they also have two great guides, Global Allies; Engage, Educate, Empower and ‘Straight Allies’. Don’t be afraid to seek out articles and blogs on the subject through channels such as ‘LinkedIn’. Or if your company has networks, talk to their leaders or members and ask them about being an ally.
“Inclusion is the foundation of innovation, and having an open, accepting, and diverse workforce will enable us to succeed in a changing and challenging world.” ~ Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyds of London
Joining a new workplace can be daunting, meeting new people and understanding different personalities within the office. When you first stared at Condeco, how did you identify me as a workplace ally?
MS: First and foremost, you were so welcoming when I joined the company. You took the time and made an effort to get to know me. I felt comfortable and I could be open and be myself with you. This was through involving me on workshops that you ran whilst I was in my induction period (we bonded over our love of Twitter as a powerful social media tool) and from talking at Friday drinks.
You showed real and authentic interest when I let you know how I had been involved in diversity and inclusion programmes, and that I was actively attending a range of different panels and networks in my evenings along with my own personal journey.
We engaged at the office on a number of different inclusion and diversity topics and I know some of these made you think of things from a complete different perspective (I have learnt a lot from you on being a working parent) and you have become a great ally coming along to different panel events on LGBT+ focused matters and for being an active and visible member of the steering group we are forming as part of our diversity and inclusion strategy and outreach. Not only do I see you as a great workplace ally but as a great colleague and friend.
“The more an organization creates and maintains an open culture, the better people will perform. That is the true mark of meritocracy. Only what you deliver and how you do it should count.” ~ Antonio Simoes, CEO of HSBC UK
Stepping out and being who you truly are is what defines us as individuals, and anyone who has the courage to stand up for what they believe in should be encouraged, especially in the workplace, where some office environments it could be very difficult. We are lucky enough to work with people from all walks of life, and through their experiences, outlooks and skills we make a very united, but very diverse team.
Thank you to Matthew Smith for his contribution to this article.