By Melissa J. Anderson

“I’ve been involved with LGBT groups since 2002, and I first noticed the term ‘straight allies’ around 2004,” recalled John Henry Watson, Vice President at Citi. “I saw an ‘A’ at the end of LGBT and wondered what it meant, and when I found out, it seemed like a no-brainer.”

Now co-head of Citi’s LGBT network chapter in New York, Watson said one of the areas he focuses on is sustaining Citi’s ally program and keeping allies involved in the long term. “Straight allies are definitely a crucial component of a diversity strategy and they help to demonstrate and sustain a supportive, inclusive culture.”

In its report on straight allies [PDF], the UK group Stonewall explains how support from straight employees is critical in achieving inclusiveness in the workplace.

“Good straight allies recognise that gay people can perform better if they can be themselves and straight allies use their role within an organisation to create a culture where this can happen. Straight allies might be at the very top of an organisation or a colleague in a team. Either way, they recognise that it’s not just the responsibility of gay people to create a workplace culture that is inclusive of everyone.”

Watson believes, “If a straight ally goes through the effort to understand the issues that LGBT coworkers face, it’s not only energizing, but it can have a positive business impact.”

How can companies cultivate an ally culture that will provide this critical support?

Corporate Programs

Watson emphasizes that each company’s ally program will be different. “There’s no standard program or curriculum that will work for every organization. It depends on the culture of the firm or workplace,” he said. Nevertheless, an ally program should fulfill a few goals – to encourage straight allies to be vocal supporters of LGBT individuals and initiatives, and to actively work to create an inclusive culture, where LGBT employees feel they can bring their whole, best selves to work.

“One thing that’s worked at Citi is to co-produce and co-sponsor events where there is a natural overlap,” he explained, such as partnering with the firm’s women’s network. “We also encourage and support straight allies to take leadership in positions within LGBT networks.”

Placing visible markers like flags or stickers on a desk or in an office has been successful in denoting who an ally is, he said, and getting straight allies involved in storytelling is emerging as a key technique in engaging them in the LGBT dialogue. Watson explained, “By storytelling, I mean telling their story about why they decided to ‘come out’ as an ally, talking about their relationships with friends and/or family members who are gay, or talking about a time they stood up for an LGBT person who was or wasn’t present.” He also said that one of the issues many pride networks are working on now is figuring out the next step for straight allies. “What do you have for intermediate or advanced steps?”

Finally, he said, getting support from senior management is important. “Engaging senior allies helps us make progress on initiatives that are important to us.”

He added, “The other thing that’s important for us in the LGBT community is to be allies to each other – for me as a gay man to be an ally to transgender or lesbian coworkers. And we should seek out ways to become better L, G, B or T allies to straight or gender-conforming people, too.”

Three Key Factors

Watson says it is especially important for leaders to make clear what is being asked of effective straight allies.

1. Be Informed. “Educate yourself to be a strong voice for inclusion,” Watson began. “Once straight allies understand the lingo and the issues, the investment pays off. If you’re an ally and you want to find out more, reach out to someone on your diversity team or in your LGBT network.”

One of Watson’s favorite resources for straight allies is a recent manual published by PFLAG, “Guide to Being a Straight Ally.” According to the guide, getting informed and learning the right vocabulary is often the first step in becoming a more effective ally – and simply asking questions is a way of showing your support, too.

The guide points out, “…remember that words aren’t a one-size-fits-all thing. Use the opportunity to have a conversation with our [LGBT] friends and colleagues about what words or terms someone prefers and find out how you can be a strong ally to them.”

Once you’ve got a feel for the language, it’s time to delve into the deeper issues. But learning about LGBT concerns doesn’t have to mean a trip to the library, Watson contends. “It really only takes about 15 minutes – you’re not poring over books and it doesn’t take much work to be able to speak intelligently about the issues.”

2. Be Compassionate. Watson says it’s important for straight allies to be compassionate about issues that their LGBT coworkers face which they themselves may not.

“It means being empathetic and understanding where you have common goals – and being compassionate about issues and stresses you might not have, like immigration equality, tax equality, or marriage equality,” he explained.

3. Be Proactive. Finally, Watson continued, take action. “I heard this at Out on the Street,” he said, referring to the recent gathering at Bank of America’s New York Headquarters to discuss how Wall Street firms can be more inclusive of LGBT employees. “You can be a bystander or you can be an upstander.”

He explained, “When you see injustice or inequality – even if there are no LGBT people around – stand up. Say, ‘You don’t understand the issue’ or ‘That’s not right.’ Being proactive means being bold and brave.”

PFLAG’s guide goes further. “If you support your [LGBT] friends — and equality — you’ll counteract [negative] voices and make sure that fairness prevails. After all, if you don’t speak up for what’s right, how can you know someone else will? Fairness is best never left to chance.”

Being proactive could also mean lending a hand when it comes to LGBT initiatives. Watson recalled a time when his coworkers went above and beyond his expectations. “It was kind of a small thing, but it meant a lot to me.”

When he first became co-chair of Citi’s NYC Pride Network, he mentioned to his teammates that he was nervous about an upcoming event where he would give a presentation on his strategy for the year. “I asked a few coworkers and external team members for support.”

Not only were they supportive, he recalled, but his team arrived early to help set up and attend the meeting. “It was a great feeling,” he said.