The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a disproportionate impact on underrepresented communities across the world, including increased risk from the virus, higher rates of job loss, and a sharp increase in anti-Asian racism, and highlighted systemic issues that lead to different career experiences and challenges for marginalized groups.

Karina Borglum, Lauren Higgo, Tom Scampion, and Derek Yau, members of AlixPartners’ Asian Leadership Insights and Growth Network (ALIGN) group based in our London office, discuss how the role of ally has evolved throughout their careers, including after the challenges of 2020.

Karina: When do you recall first learning about allyship in the workplace?

Derek: At the start of my career, the term allyship never really came about. At both companies I worked at prior to joining AlixPartners, my team leader would be responsible for showing me the ropes and my interactions was really limited to my immediate team or department. I expected something similar at AlixPartners, but I noticed quite quickly that people were keen on my development and my professional opinion and I was encouraged to engage with people across the firm and invited to high-level department meetings. You could say people were just doing their jobs, but it really feels like people were looking out for me.

Tom: That blurred line between doing your job and being an ally is interesting to me. As I reflect on when I first became familiar with the concept of allyship—which wouldn’t have been more than five years ago—the conversation around being an ally was about promoting a culture of inclusion. The word culture is very important there because it’s about creating an environment where being an ally is just everyone’s natural reaction. It’s just what we do.

Lauren: Our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at AlixPartners have played a big part in creating that culture you’re describing and serve as a place to learn how to be an advocate. When they were first introduced six years ago, I don’t think many people outside the representative group of an ERG were sure what their role was. Now, I think most people at our firm understand what an ally is and how we need to stand up for each other to proactively build inclusion into the workplace.

Karina: Picking up on that thread, how do you think ERGs at our firm and other firms can strengthen ally networks and promote that inclusive culture you’re talking about?

Derek: For me personally, I joined ALIGN because I wanted to expand my internal network. I was able to meet a lot of people where there was some common ground or shared interests. In the future if a situation comes up, I have more allies to reach out to or potentially become an ally to someone else.

Lauren: That’s certainly true within the ERGs themselves. I also think they do a great job of collaborating with other ERGs, so bringing all different kinds of people into the discussion and educating each other about their missions and issues.

Karina: And what about individuals? Whether you work in a company that has ERGs or not, what are the most important skills and qualities for being an effective ally in 2021?

Tom: I recognize that I can’t possibly know what it feels like to be a minority, and so it’s important for me to remember that and to be humble, and engaged, and curious. And with that said, recognize that it is not up to me to judge whether I’m being an effective ally or not.

Derek: Someone who is approachable and will actually take action. You could be an ally who just listens…that helps, but ultimately, people need someone who can help them take action.

Karina: You said the key word there—someone who takes action.

Lauren: I agree that it’s important to stay engaged even when it gets hard or uncomfortable. I think a good ally has the courage to take risks and act outside of their comfort zone.

Karina: I think ALIGN does a great job of that, helping people understand how they can be most effective and to understand the responsibilities of being a great ally. Which is a good segway to my next question. 2020 was certainly a challenging year, including a sharp increase in anti-Asian racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Has it changed your view on the importance of allyship?

Lauren: If anything, I think it’s reinforced the importance of allies.

Tom: I think that’s right. It reminds us all why we're doing this. Of course, a lot of the spikes that we've experienced are because of that classic fear of the other, which can be broken down through education, through information sharing. And I think that’s why ERGs like ALIGN are valuable to encourage us to understand one another better, to be more empathetic, to be more aware.

Derek: Very much my thoughts in different words. As someone of Asian origin, I was just bewildered that there were people out there who would cross to the other side of the street to avoid you or who would launch into full blown physical attacks based only on someone’s skin color. To have an ally you could talk to, who could then go and share your experiences and educate their networks is important.

Karina: What about outside AlixPartners? Considering that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on underrepresented communities in the UK and around the world, what can we do to support the communities in which we work and live?

Tom: We can play our part by making sure that everything we do demonstrates what matters most to us. AlixPartners has interactions with all sorts of businesses worldwide across our clients, suppliers, and partners. So, we have the opportunity every day to demonstrate how a great business acts.

Click here to learn more about becoming a better ally.

This month, in recognition of Lunar New Year, AlixPartners is sharing stories of renewal and unity—how we are applying the lessons learned and how we are coming together to move forward following a challenging 2020.

Click here for more information about our D&I initiatives, ALIGN, and our other ERGs.