Allies in the workplace: Using our voices to make an impact

June 30, 2021     

As part of our Pride month celebrations at BMS, Life & Science Stories interviewed David Elkins, chief financial officer and Executive Sponsor of the company’s People and Business Resource Group PRIDE Alliance, and Paul Shay, global lead of PRIDE Alliance, on the importance of allies in the workplace. 

David Elkins (left) and Paul Shay (right)

Q: What makes a good ally?

David: Being an ally requires work. It’s an ongoing, active commitment to learning and development. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone, understanding your own biases and working to overcome them. And then it’s about using your influence and privilege to advocate and speak up for others.

Paul: I agree. Part of my role is working with my peers who lead our other People and Business Resource Groups (PBRGs), and I am constantly learning how important it is to use my voice and influence to make an impact in our organization and in our community, particularly for people who are different from me.

And a big part of what our PRIDE Alliance organization focuses on is educating allies to the LGBTQ+ community about how to be more knowledgeable and active in their allyship. That work is led and implemented entirely through a team of passionate allies, and it’s been very impactful.

Q: What prevents people from being an ally?

Paul: I think fear of saying or doing the “wrong thing” is a big barrier. It happens with all communities, but I think it happens especially with respect to the LGBTQ+ community, because our vernacular can change frequently. Our community is wonderfully diverse, and I think for many who don’t consider themselves part of the community, that diversity can be intimidating at first. But I would say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Often the first step in being a good ally is to listen to learn.

David: You’re right, Paul. Listening is so important and sometimes that alone can have a massive impact on an individual, particularly in the workplace.

Paul: And sometimes, people aren’t aware of their influence. There’s a misperception that only very senior leaders can influence a culture, but it’s often peer relationships that make the biggest difference in whether or not you feel like you can be yourself at work.

David: Yes, there’s a lot of research out there showing that an individual’s experience at a company is most influenced by their direct manager and their peers. As the CFO, I often speak internally and externally about our company’s strategy, but it’s the people who work for our company who bring our strategy to life on behalf of our patients. PRIDE Alliance and all of our PBRGs help us create a company where our people can be their authentic selves and do their best work. PRIDE Alliance has a particular focus on enabling all colleagues to be their full selves at work and fully engage, through a variety of programming, and it’s helped many colleagues.

Q: What’s the best way to demonstrate that you are an ally?

David: Sometimes the everyday interactions make the biggest impact. For example, speaking up for a colleague who was overlooked in a meeting or calling out discrimination when you see it – in the moment, not outside of the meeting. It takes the confidence that comes with preparedness to engage in that way.

Paul: Agree David, developing as an ally is not a skill that someone acquires overnight. There’s some forethought needed about how you might handle a particular situation before being in it, which is why ally training can be so helpful. It’s also listening with empathy and taking advantage of other opportunities to learn more.

Q: Can you give an example of a time when having an ally at work made a difference to you?

Paul: I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to have several managers who were strong allies, both from an LGBTQ+ standpoint as well as general allies for my career development. Even if there was never a challenging situation in which they had to stand up for me, knowing that someone has my back in case it’s ever needed has been a huge boost to feeling self-confident at work – and that has allowed me to engage at a higher level.

David: I’ve had the benefit of having a leadership role in PRIDE Alliance, so people know that I’m an ally and I think that’s allowed for more open and honest dialogue with my teams. I think our team is better because everyone can be their authentic selves and talk about their families and interests outside of work without fear or inhibition.

Q: This Pride month, what makes you most proud?

David: I am so proud to work with this team and to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community every day, but this month, I’m very proud to share the work we’ve done to improve cancer care for the LGBTQ+ community.

We know that the LGBTQ+ community faces healthcare discrimination and this often results in postponed or delayed care. When you’re dealing with cancer, time is of the essence and we want to address these disparities to ensure improved outcomes for this community. We worked with the National LGBT Cancer Network and other community partners to survey LGBTQ+ cancer survivors to share their experience.

Paul: The ‘OUT: The National Cancer Survey’ is what I’m most proud of this Pride month also! It’s the largest known sample of insights from LGBTQ+ cancer survivors in the world and has the potential to be the benchmark study in understanding and improving this community’s experience with the healthcare system during their cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. We’re very excited to announce the insights from this survey on June 30, and we’re looking forward to understanding new ways we can use this research and future research to support these patients.

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