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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Ethical Ally

Hands reaching out

Hands reaching out

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Recently, a male colleague asked for my input about how to be a good ally to women in the workplace. He cited a few examples others had shared with him recently about the challenge well-intentioned men face in a post-#Metoo workplace when it comes to deciding how best to support women.

There are many great suggestions others have made on this topic. To synthesize them and add a few of my own, let’s use the model I developed for The Practice of Ethical Leadership. Its elements point to best practices for being a workplace ally for anyone.

The practice allows each of us to consider how we have an impact in leadership roles based on both on how we show up in the workplace and what do once we are there. In this way, both the “being” and the “doing” contribute and both aspects build on each other. We can be capable of acting in the workplace in a way that contributes to ethics, but erode our influence if we have character flaws, conflicts in values or low emotional intelligence. Conversely, our personal virtues may shine through regularly, but without experience and knowledge about what we can actually do when leading to encourage ethics, we may be less effective even if our character is sound.

The same building blocks that work for ethical leadership practice shed light on how to be a worthwhile ally, especially to underrepresented groups at the office. Here are six realms where colleagues can be influential—and ethical—as allies.


Personal example is the cornerstone of any ethical leadership practice, including “allyship”. Men who want to be allies to women in the workplace should share the housework at home and at work. Volunteer to take notes, arrange a few social outings or any other task most colleagues may try to dodge. Don’t interrupt women when they are speaking. In addition to mentoring women, actively sponsor them for increased responsibilities and high-profile assignments. In other words, be a positive role model supporting women at work and applying virtue ethics.

Build Community

We do our best work when our professional relationships are grounded in trust. Invest in relationship building in your workplace with men and women. Link decisions being made to mission and vision and shared values in the organization. Using your mission and values this way can serve as a check on the biases we all bring to work. Tell stories about supporting women, either stories about times you have done so or witnessed others do so well. A shared oral history is one sign of a healthy culture. By contributing to conditions that give everyone an opportunity to thrive, you are practicing common good ethics.

Encourage “Allyship”

Come right out and state goals around diversity, equity and inclusion. Use policy formation and daily decision-making as opportunities to drive consistency around gender equity and fairness throughout the company. Identify and track accountability metrics consistent with the organization’s mission and strategy that support respect and inclusion for underrepresented groups. These are choices associated with fairness, another way to evaluate the ethics of certain actions.

Play Your Position

What does this mean as an ally? Each of us has obligations based on our job function and position description that suggest a set of priorities. The best workplace allies are aware of opportunities their role affords them to support others and they take those opportunities regularly. Undoubtedly some of the people you advocate for will thrive and advance—maybe even beyond the level you are in within your organization. The best managers accept this risk and understand that contributing to the career success of a high potential colleague reflects well on their ability to develop talent.

When Things Go Wrong, Speak Up

Biases will creep into decision-making. Strong performers might be overlooked or marginalized as a result. The best allies can be especially effective at such moments by speaking up when some of the most basic, subtle erosions of women’s contributions occur—when she is interrupted or her idea is credited to someone else. For more egregious situations, don’t hesitate to use the hotlines or internal advocates, like HR and diversity offices, to get support for women in your workplace. These actions protect the rights of fellow employees and contribute to workplace justice.

Change the Systems

The most influential allies are those who can spot systemic issues and provide leadership to address them. Compensation is an obvious place to start—audit your payroll and see what you learn about equity across the part of the organization you lead. If you make changes, share the decisions and the reasons for them openly. If the pipeline really is a piece of the problem, hire more women and set targets for others to do so. Use the Rooney Rule when hiring by setting requirements for a certain percentage of finalists interviewed to come from underrepresented groups. Provide leadership in your geographic region or industry when gender bias issues surface by offering your expertise and leadership beyond your own organization. Allies who have the capacity to operate at this level can make lasting changes by chipping away at standards that are out of date or traditions with built-in biases. Operate from a position of agency and strength by accepting responsibility for making changes and not accepting the status quo. Don’t worry that such changes will be interpreted as mistakes being caught. Frame the changes to acknowledge past errors and provide hope to others than even entrenched challenges can be overcome. This is what ethical, effective allies do.

Jun 10, 2019

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