Allyship in the Remote Workplace

You already know it’s important. Here are some ideas to do it well.

Olympe Scherer
Staff Writer at Plentyworks

8 min read

While there are fewer face-to-face interactions in a remote workplace, racism among coworkers is still very much a problem. You won’t witness a microaggression at the water cooler, but the same situation could arise in a conference call. Maybe your performance report praises a Black woman’s likability instead of her actual skills. Maybe your well-intentioned diversity initiatives drain the people they are meant to help.

Many companies take this route to comply with corporate self-governance, usually under the header of “Corporate Social Responsibility” or CSR, according to Forbes. A study from the American Sociological Review suggests that diversity programs may lead executives to “believe that women and minorities benefit from reverse discrimination and thus may not deserve their position.”

A shift in mentality is sorely needed. Allyship is getting particular attention recently because of the murder of George Floyd, adding one more name to the long list of Black Americans killed by the police. Ijeoma Oluo reminds us that while we white folks may be new to these issues, racist behavior has been hurting Black people all along. That’s why companies such as l’Oreal shouldn’t be surprised to see backlash against their Black Lives Matter social media post: in 2017, they fired brand ambassador and model Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out against white supremacy. Bergdorf rightfully called them out. So before your company jumps on the PR opportunity to show their allyship, maybe it’s time to understand what allyship actually is.

PeerNetBC defines allyship as

An active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.

Remote allyship starts with having a diverse team of employees. As Abstract’s Chief People and Inclusion Officer, Jabu Dayton believes that hiring inclusively not only helps “keep a competitive edge in a changing market… it’s also the right thing to do.” Her thoughtful articledefines what it means to decolonize Silicon Valley. So while it’s good to recognize that diversity is good for business, there’s also a moral imperative at stake.

“But to put oneself in the mindset of a minority employee isn’t much of a stretch. Imagine for a moment being the only man at a bachelorette party or the only woman at a packed nightclub. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either, but it is an unnerving feeling. After a while, you may withdraw into yourself or speak less. You need backup. You need people who look like you.” From “What it’s actually like to be a Black employee at a tech company” by Mark S. Luckie. Picture Credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth

So how do I hire in an inclusive manner?

Widen your applicant pool first

Allison Wyatt, co-founder of Edgility Consulting, says Don’t Blame the Pool. Part of hiring inclusively is creating a diverse applicant pool to begin with. Wyatt advises to partner with talent “pipeline organizations” such as Management Leadership for Tomorrowthe RELAY Graduate School of Education, and Education Pioneers.

Mitigate your racial bias

Next, try conducting a blind review of resumes and applications. Studies show that people with ethnic-sounding names need to send out more applications before receiving a callback. If you’re white, this is a good start to mitigating the effects of your unconscious bias. Samantha Bee hired screenwriters using this process, and provides great tips on building a diverse and talented team.

Accommodate your interviewees’ needs

Since you work remotely, you probably won’t conduct interviews in person. Don’t assume that your potential employee has access to high-speed Internet at this stage. For example, 18% of American households don’t have a broadband internet subscription, which include 27% of Black households, according to the 2016 Census. With coronavirus limiting the access to “free” Wifi (most cafes require you to purchase drinks), it’s not obvious to get a reliable Internet connection. In the US, access to the Internet is a privilege instead of a right. Be mindful and remember that effective interviews can take many different forms, such as phone calls or interview assignments.

You don’t have to wait to reach diversity goals to be an effective ally. Remember, the key word to allyship is “active.” Change doesn’t happen overnight. There are, however, things you can do to immediately operate in solidarity with less-privileged coworkers.

No HR? No problem.

Small, remote companies don’t always have an HR department to handle discrimination complaints and educate employees about workplace harassment policies. This Comply Right article has practical advice for small businesses on how to cover allyship from a legal standpoint. One important takeaway is that in the absence of an HR person, there should always be two designated harassment complaint contacts within the company, preferably of different genders and races. This makes it more likely that any employee feels comfortable coming forward with a complaint, in case one of the contacts is the offender. 

Check microaggressions

We’ve all found ourselves in the awkward position of witnessing a racist or sexist comment in the workplace. Check this list compiled by Essence Gant for examples of workplace microaggressions. You’ll notice that most of these aggressions come from a place of ignorant assumption.

Dr. David Campt has great advice for white allies in these kinds of situations. This article of histeaches how to confront racist beliefs in a fellow white person. The key is to make sure these “confrontations” happen one-on-one and involve compassion. When a white person reacts angrily and starts sermonizing a person who acted in ignorance, Campt argues it is counterproductive to Black liberation because a person is less likely to reevaluate their beliefs under harsh scrutiny. Likewise, your response to a coworker who inflicted a microaggression should be one of constructively unpacking their racist beliefs and changing them for the long term.

Know the law

Now, if said coworker did a lot more than make an ignorant assumption, or caused harm without facing any consequences, then it’s time to know the law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers a list of laws and guidance for your perusal. The rest of the EEOC website has good information also.

Hopefully this article puts you on the right path to working on your allyship. I’m open to receiving criticism and additional resources. Remember, if you’re white and you have a burning question about protests, race, or police brutality, ask the Internet first. It is not Black people’s job to educate you. What you can do is listen to their experiences with racism, if they choose to impart it. With all of that, here are some additional materials to consider.

“Save the Tears: White Woman’s Guide” by Tatiana Mac, with an especially useful reading list about “how tech is complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.”

“The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy” by Yawo Brown, explains Polite White Supremacy and gives examples of how white people stealthily enforce white supremacy.

“Talking about racial inequality at work is difficult—here are tips to do it thoughtfully” by Jennifer Liu

“For Women Of Color In Tech, It’s ‘Hard To Grow’ Without Representation” by Brian Nordli

“What it’s actually like to be a Black employee at a tech company” by Mark S. Luckie

“97 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” by Corinne Shutack

“50+ Ideas for Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace” by Jennifer Kim

“Black and Hispanic underrepresentation in tech: It’s time to change the equation” by Mark Muro, Alan Berube, and Jacob Whiton

Listening:

“Being Black In The Tech Industry,” interview of Aaron Saunders by Eric Westervelt

“Big Talk From Big Tech On Racial Equity, But Not All Workers Are Buying It” by Bobby Allyn


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