It’s crucial that companies listen to staff about matters of diversity and keep performative allyship and virtue signalling in check, says Ali Fazal of Hibob.
Diversity, inclusion and equality have always been important for a healthy company culture, but recent social and political movements have forced businesses to take a long, hard look at their efforts and initiatives. When we become over-reliant on certain methods, such as unconscious bias training, we run the risk of becoming less authentic or less effective.
This, according to Ali Fazal of HR software platform Hibob, can lead to a problematic issue called “performative allyship”, where companies might talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. Fazal is Hibob’s senior director of marketing, having previously worked at Yotpo, Greenhouse Software, DoubleDutch and Gigya.
Fazal says it’s easy for businesses to get caught up in important campaigns such as Black Lives Matter on a superficial level, without really engaging with the issues. Ultimately, this may not help staff or customers and, in some instances, can actually do more harm than good.
“Virtue signalling and performative allyship for the sake of it are rampant among many companies now and this is not a new revelation,” he says. “For a long time, companies have used Black History Month or Pride Month as economic boons without actually committing to helping these causes long term.”
‘In the era of social media, companies that don’t take action will be held accountable’
– ALI FAZAL
So what should organisations be focusing on instead? “The best path forward is simply to listen to your staff and make adjustments accordingly,” he adds.
“Ask your diverse team members where they think this type of budget should be allocated to make maximum impact. This way, you get buy-in and know that what you’re doing matters and will produce measurable outcomes backed by people who understand and who care.”
The problem with performative allyship
Delving deeper into the issue of performative allyship, Fazal highlights the disparity between telling the world you support a cause and failing to make any real internal changes.
“Sometimes companies want to publicise they support marginalised groups or those who need support, but find it hard to make real, big changes internally related to gender equality, equity in hiring or diversity in leadership because people in charge believe they have ‘more pressing’ mission-critical, life-or-death business issues at hand,” he says.
“The good thing about our current political climate is that many are finally realising there is no more important issue. This is it. The fact of the matter is many companies will fail economically if they do not prioritise diversity and inclusion.
“In the era of social media, companies that don’t take action will be held accountable. That’s why it’s important for organisations to ensure they have a plan for not just their own public actions and affiliations, but more importantly have a plan in place to know how to fix problems internally, otherwise risk a hypocritical perception to the public.
“A negative public persona ultimately affects business operations in an adverse manner, which is difficult to bounce back from.”
How can we hold businesses accountable?
It can be difficult to hold companies accountable for their actions, or lack thereof, when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But one of the key answers, Fazal says, is social media.
“Organisations and individuals can use social media for the powerful tool it is; don’t accept the excuse that change is hard and takes a long time. If food in the company cafeteria was mould-infested or if a piece of machinery was malfunctioning, that problem would be fixed overnight. Treat racism and inequality in the workplace seriously and as an issue that requires immediate actionable change.”
It’s also important to understand, however, that the onus shouldn’t always fall on employees to hold their employers accountable, Fazal emphasises. If it comes to this, the employer has already failed.
“If it does have to happen, make sure the pathway exists for employees to give this feedback in a way that’s comfortable for them.
“For example, at Hibob we utilise an anonymous feedback tool whereby employees can give honest feedback without their identity being revealed. This type of technology is key to getting true, real-time feedback from staff that will make a difference in changing practices or putting forth new, more forward-looking policies.”
As a person of colour and a professional with plenty of experience in the area of diversity and inclusion, Fazal advises that something leaders need to learn is not disregarding people’s emotions, especially when an issue is frequent and persistent.
“The tricky thing with issues like inequality, harassment and microaggressions at work is that there isn’t always a visible smoking gun,” he says. “A lot of these situations occur behind the scenes and with little to no evidence of mistreatment. That’s why it’s vital diversity leaders treat these actions akin to violence.
“If you got feedback from multiple employees that they felt unsafe around a certain employee, you wouldn’t need camera footage of him threatening them in order to take action – you’d do it anyway. Same scenario applies to situations of inequality in the workplace.
“It’s also overwhelmingly integral to company culture for leadership and HR teams to stay vigilant. It’s easy for people to care for a short while until it gets difficult and action is actually required. Employers and colleagues should always ensure they’re being loud and consistent in calls for diversity, at every level and in every conference room.
“Commit to supporting your [black, indigenous and people of colour] colleagues and amplifying their voices, and publicly address the fact that setting goals for diversity isn’t up for negotiation.”