Empowering workplace inclusivity: How to show up for your co-workers

Creating an environment where everyone feels valued promotes positivity and enables all to thrive and reach their full potential.

In the workplace, we often emphasize the importance of self-advocacy by ensuring our voice is heard, advocating for our work, setting boundaries and more. Equally crucial is knowing how to support our colleagues, especially those from historically marginalized groups. Whether you personally identify with a marginalized group, or your colleagues do, you have likely observed instances of judgment or exclusion in the workplace. Despite seeming minor, these incidents can accumulate, significantly impacting the overall work experience of those affected. 

Microaggressions in the workplace

Subtle comments or actions expressing prejudice toward underrepresented individuals, known as microaggressions, can be a frequent occurrence in work environments.

For example, Black women can often be targets of workplace discrimination. Research indicates that some hairstyles of Black women are perceived as unprofessional at a rate that’s 2.5x higher than that of their counterparts. But hair discrimination for Black women doesn’t end there.

In a previous job a few years ago, an unfamiliar male coworker approached me while I was getting my coffee, running his fingers through my braids without permission and inquiring about how much it cost to get them done. Although I don’t believe his intentions were malicious, such incidents can leave individuals feeling othered and dehumanized. Reflecting on it, I realized that this was essentially a stranger touching my hair without asking if it was OK, presenting me with a challenging decision on how to respond. I grappled with the fear that not addressing it might signal acceptance, yet being too assertive could lead to the stereotype of the “angry Black woman.” Ultimately, I opted for a brief response and walked away.

Additionally, women experience microaggressions in the workplace at a significantly higher rate than men. According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2023 Report, women are twice as likely to be mistaken for someone junior and hear comments about their emotional state. These kinds of incidents occur at an even higher rate for women with traditionally marginalized identities. For example, the same report showed women of color are nearly six times as likely to be confused with someone else of the same race or nationality and women with disabilities are six times more likely to have others comment on their appearance. 

Discrimination goes beyond race, ethnicity and gender

It’s important to keep in mind that marginalized groups include people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ folks, Indigenous peoples, people of a lower socio-economic status, senior citizens and so on. 

For example, ageism and weight discrimination remain ever present in the workplace. AARP recently reported that about two in three adults ages 50 or older in the labor force (64 percent) think older workers face age discrimination in the workplace. Among them, 90 percent believe age discrimination against older workers is common in the workplace.

Regarding weight discrimination, a recent study from SHRM found that 12 percent of U.S. workers have felt unfairly treated due to their weight at some point in their career and 15 percent say that colleagues have made false assumptions about them because of their weight at some point in their career. The same study showed that about 50 percent of people managers tend to favor interacting with healthy-weight employees. And nearly 72 percent of U.S. workers who have experienced unfair treatment at work due to their weight say it made them feel like quitting their job.

How to show up for your co-workers

So how do you support your co-workers? How do you ensure you’re “doing it right”? How can you work through the discomfort of speaking up for those different from yourself?

  • Don’t be a bystander

When considering ways to support your co-workers, expressing your concerns is a crucial first step. If you witness something inappropriate, stand by your colleague and address the issue with the involved party; it can make a significant impact.

Reflect on instances when you felt judged or mistreated at work without anyone intervening. Consider how meaningful it would have been if someone had spoken up. Perhaps you’ve experienced someone coming to your defense in the past, and that memory is likely vivid. Speaking up doesn’t always require a public confrontation; reaching out privately to acknowledge the situation, express disagreement and offer support can be equally effective.

  • Empower workplace equity

Supporting your co-workers goes beyond reacting to negative situations; it also involves creating positive opportunities. This could mean extending opportunities to individuals who might be otherwise overlooked or recommending someone deserving of a promotion that might not be on their supervisor’s radar. This aspect is particularly crucial in industries dominated by white males, where recognizing and appreciating the contributions of female colleagues can make a significant impact.

In addition, consider the challenges some of your colleagues may be encountering at work. For instance, when interacting with colleagues whose first language differs from yours, consider adjusting your pace to facilitate better communication. If someone with disabilities requires basic accommodations like computer equipment or closed captioning during virtual meetings, advocating on their behalf can be immensely helpful. Acts of support can be as simple as being considerate of others.

  • Be an ally

Discovering that someone feels uncomfortable at work, whether in person or online, is never easy. Supporting those around you doesn’t always require grand gestures; sometimes, letting someone know you see and support them is enough.

Stand with your co-workers if they share stories of workplace discrimination. Avoid questioning or suggesting misinterpretation, as they are the ones who know their experiences. Being a supportive ally means empowering them to act and assuring them that you have their back should they need it in the future.