The Role of Co-workers In Creating Inclusive Cultures

Organizations are increasingly focused on diversity, which is a good thing socially and economically. But it is also creating new challenges for companies around inclusion.

With so many forms of diversity – age, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, different abilities, and religion, to name a few – diversity and inclusion interventions cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. Research indicates that the effectiveness of different diversity programs varies. For example, affirmative action plans tend to increase managerial representation of white women and black men, but not black women. This raises the question of whether there is any single form of diversity program that seems to work across all types of diversity. The answer seems to be yes, though it is not a practice focused on company policies or requiring actions of diverse employees. It is about the actions of coworkers.

Co-workers are an intuitive, yet often untapped, resource for creating a climate of inclusion. Research suggests that the actions of one’s co-workers are just as influential as organizational-level policies in promoting positive job outcomes. For example, Griffith and Hebl (2002) found that when gay and lesbian employees came out at work, they felt more satisfied and less anxious about their jobs when their co-workers were supportive. Moreover, this co-worker support was more strongly related with these job outcomes than either organizational policies or organizational support for lesbian and gay employees.

Law et al. (2011) found this same result among transgender workers. In a similar vein, Plaut, Thomas, and Goren (2009) found that racial minority employees were more engaged when their co-workers endorsed a “multicultural” ideology that stresses pluralism and recognizing and celebrating group differences.

Employees who foster climates of inclusion and support for their diverse coworkers are often called “allies.” The term “ally” refers to an individual who actively supports the goals of a group to which they do not belong. Allyship is relevant to every employee because any person can feel marginalized due to their identity. For example, a black male employee would be considered a minority employee due to his racial identity but could also be an ally to his female co-workers by confronting sexism against women in the workplace. Similarly, an older white employee might be an ally to co-workers of color, but could still feel excluded due to age; age discrimination in the workplace is not uncommon, especially as workforces become more multi-generational. This is one reason why allyship is so valuable: Everyone can potentially be an ally for someone else, and everyone can benefit from having allies in one form or another.

How employees can act as allies

Ally behaviors come in two forms: support behaviors and advocacy behaviors.

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Support behaviors provide comfort and tangible resources for individuals from minority backgrounds. Examples include:

Advocacy behaviors involve outward demonstrations of public support for individual, organizational, or societal-level issues pertaining to minority groups. Examples include:

  • Directly confronting prejudice, discrimination, and other inappropriate behaviors to address biased attitudes and behaviors.
  • Educating other allies about issues facing minority groups through sharing resources that capture their experiences from a first-person perspective.
  • Calling for additional resources that support minority groups, such as gender-neutral restrooms, spousal benefits for same-sex couples, and comfortable, private spaces for prayer or nursing mothers.

Diversity’s benefits

An organization’s most important asset is its employees, and employee diversity increases innovation and provides better results for clients. Organizational allies, whether hired or trained, can help companies attract, retain, and support a diverse workforce through an inclusive climate. Allyship can be hard work, but it is worth it.

Lauren Park is a research consultant at SAP SuccessFactors and a third year graduate student at Portland State University, pursuing a doctorate in Applied Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Her research centers on diversity and inclusion and issues affecting underrepresented groups in the workplace context with a particular focus on research methods and quantitative analysis.

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