Guides + Resources

How To Be A Good Ally At The Workplace

Here’s what you can do in an individual capacity to be a better ally.

No, the A in LGBTQIA+ does not stand for ally. But just because you’re not part of the community, doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully support it. With most people spending between 3-12 hours every day at work, it is safe to say that we spend a good chunk of our lives in the workplace. Creating a safe and sensitive work environment for queer and trans people can help make all these hours that much more bearable.

Even in the friendliest of workplaces, members of the community sometimes feel like they’re an animal on display in the zoo, having our lives and identities poked and prodded by others’ curiosity. Intrusive questions can be uncomfortable even when packaged in politically correct terms, which is something allies don’t often realize.

Sofie Kanpuriya, a 30-year-old deputy manager based in West Bengal shares that the times when her colleagues treat her as an equal based on her work and are curious about their life outside of their gender are the instances when she feels most welcome and included in the workplace. Indeed, it is the small gestures that can have the most significant impact.

Other steps towards building an accommodative workplace may require a complete overhaul of company policies or infrastructure to provide for gender neutral menstrual leaves, gender neutral washrooms, benefits like insurance coverage for all partners and not just spouses and so on. But, here’s what you can do in an individual capacity to be a better ally.

Address your pronouns

Whether it’s in your e-mail signature or in your zoom display name, adding your pronouns can be a subtle way to help build a more gender-sensitized workplace. This takes pressure off your queer and trans colleagues from being the only ones who may be doing this to avoid being misgendered. It also contributes towards steering away from a culture where people’s genders are assumed, which leads to misgendering them.

Respect names

It can be a very long-drawn process for queer or trans people to officially change their names. Don’t question why someone’s ‘official name’ doesn’t match what they use. “Treat their names & pronouns as a fact of life. The earth revolves around the Sun. She is XYZ. Just facts,” stresses Sofie. She adds that workplaces too need to be flexible to allow people to choose the name on their IDs and emails and not just automatically use the one on their government identification.

Use your privilege to stand up

Many workplaces may not have the most understanding culture. There may be people who may deadname someone, misgender them or make homophobic or transphobic jokes. This can be especially uncomfortable if the perpetrator is someone in power. Very often LGBTQIA+ folks feel exhausted having to always be the person that calls out this type of behavior. So why not try and acknowledge and discourage discriminatory or bigoted behaviour the next time it happens in front of you? Whether it’s happening in person or via text, you can start with stopping them, explaining what they did wrong and how it could hurt someone. For example, if someone deadnames your colleague in a conversation, you can interject by saying “Their name is XYZ,” and continue speaking.

Adopt gender neutral or gender sensitive language

For people who are not actively thinking about it, it’s difficult to see just how gendered different languages are and how this can exclude people who may not conform to the binary. Very often we will hear phrases like ‘Hello ladies and gentlemen’ or greetings like ‘Hey guys’ thrown around in the workplace as well. If you want to build a truly inclusive company culture, start with yourself. Choose neutral terms like ‘folks, team, everyone, friends.’ Being more mindful in general should help, you’ll soon be able to start spotting phrases like ‘opposite sex’ that can make its way out of your vocabulary. Think about the last time you e-mailed someone you didn’t know and used ‘Ma’am or Sir,’ how did you jump to that conclusion about them?

Respect boundaries

Gender and sexuality have always been taboo topics, especially at the workplace. But in your zeal to support queer and trans people, don’t accidentally out them or make the uncomfortable. If someone has confided anything about their identity to you, don’t share it unless they have decided to do so. Amongst colleagues who eventually become friends, it may be common to talk about sex lives and dating but don’t press people for details or ask them random questions like “when did you first realize you were gay?” If you have doubts, just ask them if they’d be comfortable answering questions about a certain topic. Being in the closet, coming out to families, transitioning etc. are all potentially triggering conversations for queer and trans people so it’s best to tread with caution and not be intrusive unless they’re okay sharing.

Usher in diversity by passing the mic!

If you’ve been given a seat at the table or been given certain decision-making powers at work, try to expand your perspective to make it as inclusive as possible. Don’t be afraid to defer to someone who might know more than you or bring in newer voices. For example, if you’re given the opportunity to work on an ad for the LGBTQIA+ community but you’re cishet, be gracious enough to accept that you need people with lived experiences to contribute and weigh in. It cannot be stressed enough that when you bring in external resources like sensitivity readers or queer and trans contributors, you must compensate them for their time and effort, especially if you’re going to be profiting from the end result – be it socially or financially.

Push for policy changes

Several trans folks have stressed on the importance of having gender-neutral washrooms in the workplace. But large-scale changes like this will hardly be taken into consideration if only a small minority of people ask for it. If you’re in a position of power, take the time to educate yourself and push for inclusive facilities like these. If you’re not, then make your stance known loud and clear, so members of the community are not the only ones fighting for it.

Don’t freak out

The journey of learning how to be a good ally is ever-evolving. So don’t freak out if you accidentally do the wrong thing, like using the wrong pronoun. Simply acknowledge it, thank people for correcting you, rectify your mistake, and continue.

More often than not, LGBTQIA+ folks know that you’re trying and will appreciate it so accept feedback when you get it. It has been said that it helps to think of being an ally as an action and not as a label, so know that as the community evolves, so will your role as a supporter.

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Sherina Poyyail (she/they) is a Mumbai-based journalist and content strategist whose work revolves around gender, mental health and the future of work. They can be found hoarding books instead of reading them or overcaffeinating and ranting on Twitter at @sherinapoyyail.
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