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Everyday Actions to be a Success Partner at Work

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Person of color sitting at a workstation, working on a computer
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1. Create an opening for someone who keeps getting talked over

Last week, I spoke on a panel along with Minda Harts, best-selling author of The Memo. Holland & Knight, the firm that hosted us, wanted a “no holds barred” conversation about the challenges Black women face in the workplace and how white women can take action as allies. I was thrilled to share the virtual stage with Minda for this important conversation.

After introductions and a general discussion, Minda described some real-life scenarios and asked me how someone could have acted as her success partner in each. (As Minda explains in her book, she prefers “success partner” to “ally.” She’s tired of the word “ally” because of people who wear the ally badge without doing anything to earn it.)

Here’s the first scenario she posed: “We are on a virtual meeting and someone keeps talking over me whenever I try to chime into the conversation.”

My suggested response? Without shaming and blaming, an ally could speak up with a simple, “I’d like to hear Minda finish her thought” to redirect the conversation back to her.

Another approach is to send a direct message to the person and let them know what you’re seeing privately. For example, “Not sure you realize this, but you keep talking over Minda. Let’s both listen more and talk less in the second half of the meeting.”

In addition to taking action in the meeting itself, I also recommend looking for systemic change to help ensure a more inclusive meeting culture. Could all meetings have a rotating role of a guardian who looks out for this kind of behavior and calls it out?

2. Speak up when hearing an offensive comment

Here’s Minda’s second scenario: “I’m twenty-four years old, in a car with my manager and another colleague. My manager comments on my burnt orange nail polish, saying something about how Black people really like bright colors. He laughed out loud and went on about it for about 15 minutes.”

My response: When hearing a racist or offensive comment, an ally can speak up with, “I don’t get it. Why is that so funny?” Or, “What makes you say that?” This approach gets the person to confront their bias, forcing them to dig into their reasoning aloud. They may decide it’s not worth explaining and drop the topic quickly.

I asked Minda how she would have felt if her colleague in the car had spoken up that day and asked the manager to explain himself. She said it would have made all the difference in the world.

3. Look for common ground, then educate

Here’s the third (and final) scenario Minda laid out for me. “I am discussing why Black Lives Matter and one of my colleagues chimes in with All Lives Matter and makes it about her now and how all women have it bad.”

This situation is one of those times when I look for common ground and then educate. Here’s what it might look like. “I agree women have it bad in the workplace, and there have been times I’ve felt like saying All Lives Matter. But, I’ve since learned that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean black lives are more important than others. Instead, it means that because Black lives are undervalued, we need to focus on fixing that.”

I’d then hand the proverbial mic over to Minda with a quick, “So, let’s get back to what Minda was saying.”

4. Ask Black employees about their actual work

In How to Be a Better Ally to Your Black Colleagues, Wharton professor Stephanie Creary shared a four-step framework formed from over a decade of studying DEI practices. While the entire article is worth reading, I want to highlight one of the steps: Ask Black employees about their work and their goals. Here’s what she wrote:

“Inquiry can be a powerful tool to create connection when people can effectively read social situations and body language. However, when done without care — for example, by focusing on their racial backgrounds, personal lives, or their physical appearance — inquiry can feel overly invasive and harmful to Black workers.

To improve the quality of your relationships with your Black colleagues, ask them about their actual work, including what they are hoping to accomplish, any concerns they have about doing that, and how you might be able to help them reach their vision.”

What a pro-tip for people managers, mentors, and better allies everywhere.

5. Push for vendor and partner diversity commitments

This week, SurveyMonkey announced that, in addition to the anti-racist work they’re doing internally, they are requiring their vendors and partners to make a commitment to diversity as well as demonstrate progress. CEO Zander Lurie wrote that he is personally contacting their 20 largest vendors “to inform them that investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion will be a requirement for doing business with us.”

Other companies joined SurveyMonkey in making this commitment, including from 23andMe, Age of Learning, Box, Chime, Eventbrite, Genesys, Headspace, Leaf Group, Intuit, PagerDuty, Slack, Tinder, Upwork, Tile, and Zoom.

Unless you work at a company that already evaluates diversity and inclusion as part of its vendor selection process, consider asking about it at your next all-hands meeting. Doing so may help create an ecosystem of organizations where people from all demographics can do their best work and thrive.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

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Better Allies®

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Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.

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