In order to create more just and fair systems, we have to disrupt the status quo. This means that current power dynamics at work need to be re-examined and questioned. It takes courage to fight for justice in the face of risks. That’s why groups who have historically faced bias and discrimination in the current system can’t change these systems alone. Majority group allies need to use their voice and take action to enact a more equitable culture too. It’s important that everyone is on board when it comes to making our workplaces more inclusive.
However, being courageous in calling out injustice requires an understanding of what underrepresented groups require from allies. Recent research has examined effective courageous workplace behaviors, from the perspective of minority group members. The researchers (two of my colleagues and myself) found that courageous behaviors can raise the self-esteem of disadvantaged group members at work. This then increases job satisfaction and decreases emotional exhaustion. This work shows the potential power of acts of courage from majority group members. It also helps provide some guidance on how to best drive equity in organizations. Importantly, allyship allows for greater equity without burdening minority group members to take these risks alone. Read about the three types of courageous behaviors we uncovered below!
Courage Through Advocacy
First, demonstrating courage can involve pushing for more inclusive policies or practices in your workplace. Imagine that a Black woman is going through the hiring process at your company. She was being underpaid in her last job. She wasn’t a poor performer compared to others. But, the hiring manager held unconscious biases that led to discrepancies in her pay. Now, imagine that your company engages in the practice of asking people what their past salary was, in order to determine what they should be offered now. This practice may be driving pay discrimination for women of color at your company. This is especially true given Black, female candidates are more likely to have been paid less for the same job.
You might decide to advocate for a policy change. Maybe you suggest that salary bands are pre-determined for each position and applied evenly across candidates. This behavior might be risky, because it calls the status quo into question. But, it would also be courageous. This action could have really positive consequences for the fairness in the hiring process moving forward. This kind of action might be helpful because job candidates are not in a powerful position to advocate for themselves. Further, depending on the climate of the organization, minority group members may feel it is too risky to bring this issue up themselves. It’s always ideal to check with minority group members about the action you plan to take before you take it. If you learn your actions are viewed as helpful, you can use your power to drive structural change.
Courage Through Education
Sometimes you can demonstrate courage just by educating others. Even though this act sounds benign, it can be risky in some workplaces. For example, imagine you work with a transgender colleague who uses “they” pronouns. Now imagine that your coworkers continually use the wrong pronouns when referring to this colleague. In this instance, it might be helpful to educate your colleagues about why proper pronoun usage is important and respectful. Using your power in that instance can be useful. Your transgender colleague may already feel uncomfortable, and feel even more singled out, if they have to educate coworkers on their own.
Again, asking minority coworkers if they’d like you to take the lead on educating others is a good idea. If they agree that your voice is helpful, you might tell other majority group members why you are an ally at work. You might also provide tips regarding how you have educated yourself on these perspectives. Providing research-based resources for colleagues to read can also help. Sometimes people just need to learn more and feel comfortable before they can start to change non-inclusive behaviors.
Standing Up and Speaking Out Counts
The last way that you might demonstrate courage has to do with defending others who are being threatened or belittled by colleagues or customers. It is still ideal to check with minority group members about whether they want you to stand up for them. However, this is the only category that can warrant swifter action. For example, imagine that a colleague uses a slur to refer to a gay man that you both work with. Your gay colleague is in earshot but doesn’t say anything. You may not want to “out” your gay colleague or draw attention to his sexuality in particular.
Instead, you might tell the colleague who used the slur that you personally find that term offensive. You could also say you won’t tolerate that kind of language being used in the workplace. Finally, you might highlight any company policy prohibiting that kind of language at work. Later, in private, you could ask your gay colleague if there was anything else he wished you said or did. You could also inquire about how he is doing and if he wants you to do anything else.
While you didn’t have time to walk away from the colleague in question, ask your gay colleague for his thoughts, and then act, you do have time to follow up after. Remembering to make the confrontation about you – and not about them – is also important. Showing your colleagues that inclusive language matters to everyone, not just minority group members, can be helpful.
Have you ever shown courage at work? What happened? What did you do? Did minority group members view your actions positively? We need everyone to unite for workplace justice to be achieved. But, we need to understand allyship through the lens of minority group members first.