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How to be an active ally in the workplace

January 4, 2018

You have to be assertive to be an ally, says LGBT advocate Jeanne-Marie Navetta. For more than a decade, Navetta has led the Straight for Equality project for PFLAG. Her nonprofit “aims to invite, educate, and engage new allies in the effort to achieve full inclusion for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT).”

As Navetta says: “Ally is not just a noun, but a verb.”

For employees who are gay and lesbian, transgender, people of color, physically disabled or “neurodiverse”—like those with autism, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and other conditions—the visibility of allies matters more than many may realize. And these realities are also more rampant than many people grasp.

For example, one in five people experiences a mental health issue in a given year. And even in a world where eight-in-ten Americans know someone who is gay, same-sex marriage is legal, and corporate leaders like Apple’s Tim Cook are openly gay, 53 percent of gay workers still remain closeted at work, and more than 100 anti-LGBT laws were pending in states last year. Some firms are reacting to this need with not just tolerance, but active welcome, and for good reason—embracing strategies that help employees maintain a healthy mental state has been shown to not only improve the work experience for everyone but also to cut costs related to absenteeism and reduced productivity.

Autism acceptance has brought some of the most impressive strides as of late. The autism spectrum, which includes Asperger’s syndrome, affects roughly one percent of the world’s population, roughly 60 percent of whom have a higher than average intelligence. But 85 percent are unemployed, due largely to social difficulties.

Autism At Work, an initiative by the software company SAP founded in 2011, aims for a 1 percent autistic workforce. The firm was inspired by a Danish software company called Specialisterne, founded in 2004 by a man with an autistic son: 75 percent of its 50-plus employees, mostly programmers, are on the spectrum. When the founder, Thorkil Sonne, gave a talk at Harvard Business School, one professor recalled, “He’s the only person I’ve ever seen in an executive program at Harvard get a standing ovation.” These proactive cases, reviewed in 2016 by two Harvard Business School professors, may soon become more common. Management consultancy Accenture, for instance, has a Mental Health ally program with 6,000 members, offering training and certification in allyship and advocacy. Yahoo also recently announced its NeuroDiversity Employee Resource Group, designed to help neurodivergent employees be open about their strengths and challenges.

“Simply understanding how my mind works differently, I’ve been able to let go of how I thought I should do things and accept myself for who I am,” Yahoo’s Head of Production for the Global Marketing Department Margoux Joffe told Fast Company. Joffe, whose ADHD was diagnosed at age 29, is the group’s founder.

Navetta and Joffe are both examples of how positive change requires not just conviction, but action. The little acts of outreach matter when building toward fairness in our own communities and workplaces. Minority employees—those of color, the disabled, LGBT, and neurodiverse alike—don’t know that they are supported in a workplace unless their coworkers say something, and their bosses do something to prove that they value equality.

A key part of efforts toward welcoming will be a mindset shift, in which coworkers become allies. Here are a few tips for how to evolve your own workplace conversations and move the process forward:

  • Be visible. Be open. PRIDE buttons and flags, of course, signal support. So do “I’ll go with you” buttons that show that you will walk with a transgender person to the restroom. Be familiar with terminology for LGBT and neurodiverse communities. Understand how to support colleagues coming out at work: Ask “How can I help you?” Don’t assume that a person is out to everyone, whether about their sexuality, gender, or mental illness.
  • Lead by example. Remember that keeping a secret can be stressful, whether it’s an atypical gender or the pills someone takes for ADHD. Make openness easier for one employee and you’ll automatically help personalize an issue for another—the first step to building a bridge of understanding.
  • Ask questions and find common ground. “Have you ever known someone who was gay? Transgender? Autistic? Bipolar?” Questions can help coworkers with different backgrounds, experiences, and needs find common ground: Did you grow up in the same area? Do you both have children? Do you do a similar kind of work?
  • Empathize: Repeat what the other person says back to show you are listening. Be conscious of your unconscious biases.
  • Be patient. Change doesn’t happen overnight. What matters is listening.
  • Leverage resources. Learn which organizations are available for assistance and support. Recommend groups like PFLAG, the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN (for LGBT school and youth), the Gay Christian Network, the National Center For Transgender Equality. For the mentally ill, the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) provides support for, and information about, treatments. Apps like Talkspace and Happy offer support by phone, at a fraction of the cost of therapy, while the app CampFire provides video support groups not just for those with diagnosed mental illnesses, but for grief, divorce, work stress, and other anxieties common among healthy people. Some workplaces may even have existing relationships with some of these organizations or providers—an active show of support that can go a long way for employees seeking help and understanding.
  • Seek out inclusive literature and films. Movies like Moonlight are useful, as are documentaries like How to Survive A Plague, about the 1980s AIDS crisis, and Screaming Queens, about a transgender rights protest once lost to history. Books range from I’m From Driftwood, about growing up gay in a small town, and The Elusive Embrace, a memoir by New Yorker writer Daniel Mendehlson about being gay and a classicist, or the memoirs and novels of Edmund White about being a gay man in New York and Paris in the 1960s. About mental illnesses, too, memoirs abound: Marbles, a graphic novel about manic depression; Look Me In The Eye by Jon Elder Robison, about life with Asperger’s syndrome; Memoirs of an ADHD Mind, and many more.
  • Recognize and celebrate the benefits of accommodation. People who are “neuroatypical” may bring skills of imagination or mathematical ability. But they may also need accommodations. Someone with ADHD or autism may do better in a quiet office than in an open workspace, for example. A mood disorder may require occasional sick days—and the person need not feel guilty for talking openly with his or her supervisor about the condition. Those with PTSD—scarred by a past shock, like a car crash, combat, or sexual assault—may show signs of detachment, like trouble feeling excitement or being motivated by rewards at work. All of these situations tend to become even more severe with isolation. By learning about these conditions, supervisors can adapt to colleagues, and benefit from their unique skills.

From the drive and creativity common in bipolar people to the unique outlook and experiences of LGBT employees, diversity often confers gifts as well as challenges. It is with the ecosystem in the office today—from white men to transgender black women; from autistic computer programmers to art directors with bipolar disorder—”good” is often not good enough.

As the mother of one LGBTQ advocate remarked, “This isn’t about the gays anymore. It’s about everyone.”