Many individuals and organizations claim to be allies, but not all are genuinely committed to supporting marginalized groups. Performative allyship, a form of superficial activism, focuses on the appearance of allyship rather than meaningful action. It can be particularly harmful in the workplace—to organizations and the individuals that comprise them.
Performative allyship creates a false sense of progress and can perpetuate inequality. It isn’t just harmful to marginalized groups within your organization: it’s also hurting your bottom line. Let’s discuss ways performative allyship negatively affects your business and how to truly make a positive impact on your organization’s culture.
What Does Performative Allyship Look Like?
Performative allyship occurs when an organization wants to look like they’re supporting marginalized groups—by calling for or creating allies from their people without supporting their development or allowing them to take action that amounts to real change. It is easier to appear virtuous than to be virtuous.
These performative activities usually involve some form of tokenism, for example a company hires some people from marginalized groups to improve on their diversity metrics or makes sure the only people of color in the office are in company photographs—but it also goes beyond that. Not only might an organization take part in these practices, but they likely also position themselves as deeply interested participants in movements such as allyship, meant to uplift marginalized people—but without actually soliciting any true change within their organization. It could look like running a weeks-long Black History Month campaign on social media without any initiatives or programs to uplift Black people in their organization.
These not-so-helpful activities have been more common since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. As social media platforms like Instagram were flooded with black squares meant to indicate silence on the part of non-marginalized individuals to make room for Black voices, they, particularly businesses, ended up drowning out Black voices with their #activism. We see something similar happening every year during Pride Month. Organizations that follow it up with claims that they want to make allyship a part of their mission without doing the work it takes—they’re doing more harm than good.
In all, performative allyship is a way to look good without actually doing any good. And it hurts your organization in ways you probably don’t realize.
How Corporate Performative Allyship Affects Your Business
When organizations publicly jump on the back of a movement meant to bring attention to a historically marginalized group of people without doing the work to create real change within, two particularly important areas are affected: trust and public perception.
If an organization is an ally in name only, any outward campaigns to signal their allyship will be seen as glaringly hypocritical to employees who would be positively affected by true allyship. One day, someone is going to speak up publicly about this disconnect. Whether that person who speaks out is a current employee or a potential employee learning about you, this can be hugely damaging to both your sales and result in talent drains that are wildly expensive down the line.
Consumers want to patronize and work for companies that are aligned with their values and stand for something. In the age of social media, now, more than ever, people mobilize quickly to speak out against empty virtue signaling. And that information spreads loudly like wildfire.
Luckily, you can be an ally not just in name but also in action.
3 Ways to Combat Performative Allyship
To truly develop an inclusive workplace, you must start with measurement and collecting data to assess the current state of diversity and inclusion. How many diverse groups of people already exist within your organization? How do you provide opportunities for those individuals already? Do you provide pathways to ensure their success? You can answer these questions through surveys, interviews, and focus groups to understand how underrepresented people at your organization feel about your efforts (or lack thereof) to uplift them.
Further, organizations serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives look toward the most privileged groups within, then study how they made it to the top and discover ways to ensure they extend those same experiences to marginalized groups. Was it the projects they worked on, the people they knew, their education, or their professional development opportunities?
It doesn’t end here, though. As critical as this step is for identifying areas of improvement, you must take that information and map out plans to ensure you enact the change.
After you’ve collected information and identified your weak points, it’s time to create a strategic plan, to act. You need more than an Employee Resource Group to hold your entire business accountable. You need to plan for real change, which will look different for every organization depending on their starting point but often includes outlining timelines, specific goals, and key performance indicators (KPIs) to track progress.
The issue many organizations run into with the planning phase is that they set goals that are too difficult to meet in a short period. “We’ll have a gender balanced organization in five years,” is a perfect example of an unachievable goal in many industries. It’s important to plan goals that are challenging yet possible. You need to be able to honestly hold your leaders accountable for change, and you can’t do that if your goals aren’t at all practical.
The next phase in this process is the one that will ensure your success, and it is the most difficult. You must hold your leaders and managers accountable for the plans and goals you set forth. There are a few different levels of accountability you can enact.
The first level of accountability simply involves investigating how to hold your managers to account for driving conversations around diversity and inclusion and prioritizing actions that support true inclusion. This can entail simple yet regular touch-base conversations to keep the energy high in these areas.
The second level of accountability entails conducting and dissecting engagement surveys for your managers. If you deep dive into how employees feel about their manager’s dedication to inclusion, you’ll understand which individuals at your organization feels heard and by whom. It may mean leadership focuses more on developing certain managers in this area and provides an opportunity to positively reinforce others who are already showing promise. At this point, we expect managers to have a diversity plan, a detailed “to achieve” list that they can be expected to deliver.
The last level of accountability is the most serious: actions tied to remuneration. DE&I efforts are often tied to important KPIs to ensure progress when planning out and mapping goals. If certain managers do not show progress or alignment with organization-wide efforts over periods and after intervention, you must take more serious action to ensure momentum is maintained.
DE&I Work Drives Change
True DE&I work can create real change and improve ways people think about their workplace. Done right, initiatives such as allyship or inclusion training can excite people to want to be a part of the solution—not part of the problem. Check out GP Strategies’ DE&I programs and begin transforming your organization’s culture today.