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How to be a supportive advocate and ally at work

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 29 Jun 2023

As we continue to support Pride month, experts offer tips on going beyond glib cliches and making sure you’re a true ally to your LGBTQ+ colleagues.

Jeanne Manford was a teacher who started the first support organisation for parents of gay children, after her son was beaten at a gay rights demonstration in 1972. She wrote a letter to The New York Post criticising the police for not protecting him. Two months later, she walked alongside him in a gay liberation march, carrying a sign: “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.” 

The ultimate ally, Manford went on to become a prominent national spokesperson for the cause and helped encourage the development of similar groups around the country. Today, PFLAG – Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – has 200,000 supporters and 400 chapters in the US.

So much has changed in legislation and public opinion towards LGBTQ+ people since Manford’s early activism days but still we know that too many of them do not feel able to be open about their sexual or gender identity at work. According to Stonewall, more than a third of LGBTQ+ staff have hidden or disguised the fact that they are LGBTQ+ at work in the last year, because they were afraid of discrimination.

Treating everyone with respect and interacting with colleagues in a way that allows them to be authentic isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also a cornerstone of promoting positive employee wellbeing, productivity, staff recruitment and retention. 

“If we feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, we’re going to be happier,” says David Hull-Watters, Associate Consultant and Trainer, Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion. “People won’t stick around in a workplace where they don’t feel psychologically safe.”

Having leaders in the business who set the tone and create the right culture as allies is critical. Leadership allies will challenge and support, and will also make sure they hold back to allow a diverse range of voices to share their perspectives in meetings. 

But there’s much that we as individuals can do to be better allies to our LGBTQ+ workmates and colleagues.

Make time and space for your colleagues

“By creating space – even if it’s two minutes at the start of the day – to connect with our colleagues, we’ll form far healthier relationships,” says Hull-Watters. 

Heterosexual and cisgender allies will have some understanding of the barriers and challenges faced by their queer and trans colleagues, but the only way to truly understand why these barriers exist – and how to help solve them – is to hear from those who experience them on a daily basis, and the impact that they have. 

“Seek out your colleagues to ask them about their own professional working experiences,” says Aimee Treasure, Marketing Director at recruitment agency and D&I consultancy Templeton and Partners. “What could be better, and what can allies do to truly improve things? As long as questions are polite, LGBTQ+ individuals will be happy to share with their colleagues, creating better understanding and relationships all round.”

Challenge your own biases and educate yourself

It’s important to recognise your subconscious ‘affinity biases’. “We often don’t consciously or proactively engage with people we’re less comfortable with. So it’s about recognising that bias exists and that if we’re favouring certain colleagues over others, we need to question why that is,” Hull-Watters says.

Much of the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face within workplaces is worsened by misinformation and a lack of education. Take advantage of opportunities to educate yourself about the challenges your LGBTQ+ colleagues may face, and equip yourself with the nuanced language and terminology around LGBTQ+ inclusion and its evolution. 

Offer year-round commitment 

If you think changing your logo to reflect rainbow colours is enough to show true support, you might want to think again. Unless support is felt all year round, such gestures can end up being hollow and more about ticking boxes than genuine allyship, Treasure warns.

“Proactive support for LGBTQ colleagues can be shown every day and month of the year in small ways. Some companies offer rainbow-coloured lanyards that attach to office building passes, sending a symbol of welcome to LGBTQ+ colleagues you interact with every day. To have even greater impact, you can also join LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Groups if your organisation offers one, and get involved with fundraising for charities that primarily support LGBTQ+ people.”

Call out injustice and discrimination 

Proactive allyship means being prepared to stand up for what’s right. Sometimes that means witnessing and speaking up against direct discrimination. 

Bear in mind that homophobic and transphobic behaviour can be unintentional, resulting more from ignorance or lack of understanding than aggression or hatred. When you call someone out for their words or actions, especially in front of other colleagues, this can feel awkward, embarrassing or as if you are the person causing the problem, so tread lightly and calmly explain why such behaviour is unacceptable.

“Being courageous enough to address the behaviour or words at the time, explaining the negative impact of what has been said/done and what should be said/done instead, not only demonstrates your support for LGBTQ+ colleagues but reinforces positive messaging to other colleagues, helps others positively change their behaviour, and removes this burden from LGBTQ+ people themselves,” Treasure explains. 


Sponsorship is a critical tool for career development that provides high-potential employees with opportunities to advance their own career development. However, we know that diverse talent, including LGBTQ+ employees, don’t benefit from the same level of sponsorship as others. If you’re serious about allyship, it’s up to you to actively sponsor high-potential LGBTQ+ employees within your organisation and advocate for them when they’re not in the room.

“This will enhance their visibility within a business, can positively impact their knowledge and expertise and open doors to projects as well as future promotion opportunities,” says Suki Sandhu OBE, CEO and founder of INvolve and Audeliss. “Sponsorship is key for systemic change and smashing barriers to progress that can prevent LGBTQ+ employees from succeeding.” 

Aim for improvement, not perfection 

As workplaces become increasingly diverse, many individuals and companies strive even harder to reflect a position as the perfect ally. People worry about saying or doing the wrong thing, being out of touch with the latest issues and language terms, and inadvertently speaking for or offending someone who is from a different background or part of a different group.

If ever in doubt about the best actions or words for a situation, ask questions, Treasure suggests, “for example, proactively asking someone what their preferred pronouns are and sharing yours too, enquiring whether someone prefers to use the term ‘gay’, ‘queer’ or other to describe their own identity, or checking how their partner should be referenced on an HR form.”

Heterosexual allies aren’t expected to understand everything their LGBTQ+ colleagues have experienced: the act of perfect allyship is simply commitment to try to understand better, and daily striving to improve this understanding while being supportive when and where you can.

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