How coworkers, employees, and leaders can create a safe and comfortable workplace for the LGBTQIA+ community and enable authenticity at work.

According to a Great Place to Work blog, “A workplace ally…helps [marginalized] groups feel heard, valued, and respected…once leaders are more visible about their allyship, this creates a safe space for other leaders and colleagues to do the same.”

How can we keep an LGBTQIA+ allyship conversation going year-round? How can you be there for colleagues without overwhelming them or overstepping boundaries?

Pride@Apex, an employee resource group, recently answered these questions and more during a webinar on allyship within the LGBTQIA+ community.

“We can't save the world, but we can wake up every day and try to do better.”

What Does it Mean to Be an Ally?

“Being an ally is more about what you do than who you are,” says Lindsay White, Pride@Apex’s guest speaker and an LGBTQIA+ advocate, singer, and writer. “It’s an everyday practice. It’s about creating space for others and being aware of the systems that are actively harming people.”

The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion defines allies as “individuals who stand up for the equal and fair treatment of people different than them…[they] offer some of the most effective and powerful voices for those who are underrepresented.”

To be a more insightful ally, White discusses looking inward to recognize how we’re complicit in various systems, as everyone is in some way. She recommends taking shame out of the equation, and not labeling our actions as good or bad.

Ask yourself: How can I give up some of my privileges, or leverage my connections or power to disrupt these systems and ideally transform them so we can all benefit and be more evolved and healed?

“We can't save the world,” White states, “but we can wake up every day and try to do better.”

How to Be an Ally in a Leadership Position

Being an ally at work has different connotations depending on if you’re a member of the leadership team or a regular employee.

Suggestions for leadership:

  • Establish safe policies and procedures
  • Demand accountability from employees and follow through on these policies
  • Have a specific plan for how you will measure and achieve these goals
  • Set up resource libraries for self-paced training for employees
  • Invest in diversity and inclusion training for HR at minimum, but consider training for all team members
  • Provide avenues for anonymous feedback so people can feel safe sharing

How to Be an Ally to a Coworker

Suggestions for colleagues:

  • Recognize that you don’t need to understand everyone to be an ally; total comprehension isn’t necessary in order to have empathy for someone
  • The best thing you can do is listen
  • Believe people when they talk about their experiences
  • Recognize that everyone deserves to feel safe at work
  • Educate yourself on your own time; don't assume the queer person in your office is going to educate everyone
  • Provide tangible support, whether that’s taking them to a safe space or sitting down with them to listen
  • Ask what they need instead of assuming.  Try asking, "How can I show up for you? What does support look like for you?”
  • Listen to someone fully without jumping in and sharing your own personal experience. Sure, your neighbor’s cousin is also gay, but that doesn’t mean your coworker needs to hear about him right now.
  • If you see something questionable occurring at work that involves a member of the queer community, ask them, "Would it be okay with you if I spoke to XYZ about what I'm observing?” or “I'm here any time you want me to take this issue to XYZ."
  • Take stock of your position and strengths: maybe you can coach a coworker through a mock interview or help them advance a skill set.
  • Don't fixate just on a person's queerness. It's not the only part of their identity—there is more to them! Ask them about their hobbies and weekend plans, not just what they thought about the latest season of Queer Eye.

De-escalating Conversations

Especially in today's complex world, how do you help a coworker de-escalate heated conversations around LGBTQIA+ topics?

If you're an ally, resist the urge to get outraged on their behalf. You can still be passionate and have a sense of justice, but it's not your job to escalate the situation. If you feel comfortable doing so, try to defuse the situation instead.

Keeping your cool, ask yourself, How can I diffuse this tension from a place of calmness and empathy? Try saying something along the lines of, “Hey, this conversation seems a little heated. Let's take a step back."

Figure out how you can help the specific individual in the situation. Some people want space, while others might want you to spend time with them to ensure they feel safe. Everyone is different, so it’s important to ask what they need.

Advice for Members of the Queer Community

White shares tips for navigating the workplace as a member of the queer community. Many LGBTQIA+ employees are bombarded with queer-related questions from coworkers who are often well-intentioned, but sometimes misguided.

“If you don’t want to close the door [on their questions], but you don’t have the capacity, just say ‘I appreciate your willingness to approach me, but I don’t have the capacity right now,’ and direct them to the library or a website instead,” White says.

Common challenging remarks made to queer community members include, “That’s not how I was raised,” or “Your lifestyle goes against my beliefs.” How do you respond to these statements and work around them, especially if the topic is brought up at work?

Potential responses include:

  • “I don’t feel comfortable discussing this at work.”
  • “I would prefer to keep our relationship professional and not discuss personal beliefs. I’ll let you know if that changes at any point. Thanks.”
  • “You can still accept that queer people are in the world, and they deserve to live their lives and be safe and exist.”
  • “No one is asking you to be queer or gay. We are just asking that you accept the reality that we exist.”
  • “Acknowledging Pride shouldn’t have to go conflict with your beliefs. The two can exist simultaneously.”

Final Thoughts

White offers her final thoughts: “This is a time where we need to protect our [LGBTQIA+] rights, and that feels heavy and like you're constantly battling something,” she says. “But living life with joy is also [fighting]. Demonstrate to the world that nothing will get in the way of you living your life with pure joy.”

You might not always get it right as an ally, but that’s okay—continue showing up. By listening, caring, and offering support, you can help LGBTQIA+ employees feel more comfortable being their true selves at work.