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Supporting Asian employees in the workplace

By John Gain | June 3, 2021

Employers can take steps to combat bias in the workplace and ensure dignity and respect for Asian employees.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an alarming and disturbing number of incidents targeted at Asians. This intolerance is a reminder not only that the long history of discrimination against Asians is continuing but also that employers can take direct action to combat it by supporting the Asian community in and outside of the workplace.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders actively in the workforce, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Let’s start with a baseline perspective: Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., growing by 81% from 2000 to 2019, from roughly 10.5 million to 18.9 million, according to recent Pew research. In terms of current U.S. employment, there are more than 11 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders actively in the workforce according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unfortunately, discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) is on the rise too. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early March 2021 found that 87% of Asian Americans said there is a lot of or some discrimination against them in society. About four-in-ten Americans say it is more common for people to express racist views about people who are Asian since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Between March 19, 2020, and March 31, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate received over 6,603 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate with 64% of them being reported by women. While 65% of discrimination manifests through verbal harassment and name calling, incidents such as workplace discrimination and being barred from transportation account for over 10% of actions. Discrimination through physical assault is responsible for 12% of the hate crimes. This hate is happening in stores, public parks and transportation and on city streets, and undoubtedly, in places less visible to many.

History and recent progress

Sadly, anti-Asian discrimination and hate has a long history dating back to the 19th century and at times was even institutionalized through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese-American internment prison camps during World War II and the highly publicized murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, in the 1980s. In addition to these overt acts, many Asian employees also experience subtle and nuanced discrimination through comments that reflect disbelief when their name or skin color doesn’t correspond to stereotyped expectations.

Most “good Asian daughters and sons” like me have learned to laugh off most insensitive remarks and to bury the hurtful feelings that accompany both the conscious and unconscious bias. Furthermore, our silence does nothing to stop further incidents of racism, which can — and do — happen anywhere or anytime.

The good news is that Congress recently passed a bill to fight anti-Asian hate crimes and President Biden signed it on May 20. It is intended to expedite a review of hate crimes reported to police during the COVID-19 pandemic, provide guidance for local law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes, expand public education campaigns and combat discriminatory language in describing the pandemic. This legislation however is just a start, and employers are also addressing ways to support employees of all ethnicities.

In the past year, organizations have recognized the importance of creating physically and psychologically safe places for employees to work (whether onsite or from home), and many have been public in their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), often making statements against racism and intolerance for discriminatory behavior. Recent Willis Towers Watson research found that over 320 companies made public commitments to address racial equity between June 2020 and May 2021.

In many cases, the impact of these commitments on employees has been favorable, with 67% of employees believing their organization provides a work environment free of discrimination and harassment and 64% believing management at their organization supports diversity in the workplace. Only 50% of employees, however, believe their employer is taking steps to seriously address issues.

Why and how to respond

So where can employers start? The first place is to understand how employees — and in this case, Asian employees — experience work and the employee lifecycle. Employees may experience:

  • Bias in hiring and onboarding strategies through affinity bias
  • A lack of fairness during career development and advancement opportunities
  • Inequities in pay and benefits

Such experiences will likely culminate in feeling a lack of dignity in the workplace that can lead to decreased engagement, lower wellbeing and retention concerns.

To address these issues and create a more physically and psychologically safer space, employers should consider:

  1. 01

    Understand what matters to Asian employees and how they experience the organization.

    Dignity matters and organizations are focusing on ensuring employees are treated with dignity and respect and where employees can be their true selves without worrying about whether they will be accepted. According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2020/2021 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, Asian employees report feeling a lower sense of dignity in the workplace, nearly 6% lower than the overall score, and only 26% of Asian females feel a sense of fairness (defined by promoting competent people, being fairly evaluated and paid fairly) in their organization, compared to 37% of employees overall.

  2. 02

    Create a sense of community and a “brave space” for Asian employees and their allies.

    Creating forums to invite employee perspectives, where employers can actively listen and learn from Asian employees sends a message of compassion and concern, which can often have a greater impact on key ethnic groups than public statements alone. Furthermore, encouraging employees to speak up further promotes a culture of psychological safety and belonging, which is crucial to fostering cultures of dignity. By creating these “brave spaces”, this cultivates a productive dialogue where employees are encouraged to speak honestly and critically from their own experience toward the end of mutual learning. Employers can take several actions:

    • Consider organizing an Asian and Pacific Islander employee resource group (ERG) or affiliate group if one does not already exist. Identify a business leader to sponsor the group and be both a champion and broader voice for change.
    • Build online forums such as Yammer or Microsoft Teams for Asian employees — and allies — to share and learn from each other. Take note of these discussions as ways the organization can both activate appropriate behaviors and take further action to support their Asian community in ways that matter most.
    • Use listening forums such as virtual or in-person focus groups for Asian employees and allies to share their experiences with discrimination. Host broader all-employee listening forums to create greater visibility and awareness on recent anti-Asian discrimination as well as how employees can take action to help. Have a few Asian employees share their stories, how they have been impacted and what/who is inspiring them to move forward.
  3. 03

    Establish, review and adapt learning workshops related to DEI.

    Consider multiple and concurrent learning paths for employees, managers and leaders considering their respective spheres of influence when reviewing and enhancing your DEI learning workshops.

    For all employees, consider key foundational elements of DEI learning such as unconscious bias and inclusion. And then move to more in-depth and focused workshops such as inclusive and brave conversations, identifying and responding to microaggressions and being the best ally you can be.

    For managers and leaders, provide additional learning workshops such as racial equity training and leadership activation for conscious inclusion.

    For all of the above workshops, utilize actual situations experienced in your organization to make the learning real, relevant and impactful and allow discussion of those case studies to be conducted in small groups of 5-7 participants.

  4. 04

    Demonstrate your commitment to ensuring cultures of inclusion and dignity through continued leadership behaviors.

    Recent Willis Towers Watson data shows that four-fifths of employers will take steps to promote DEI in their workplace culture and policies over the next three years compared with just 55% that took measures over the past three years.

    In addition, nearly three-quarters of employers (70%) recognize that workplace dignity is important to their current success, and nearly all (94%) say that workplace dignity will be important to their success over the next three years.

    Creating and sustaining an inclusive, diverse and equitable culture depends on you as a leader. DEI isn’t an HR initiative; it is a business imperative — it happens on the ground in everyday situations. Successful leaders deliver an employee experience that is built on authenticity and trust.

    • Show you care: Speak up and ask. Listen more. Talk less. Be authentic.
    • Be curious: Learn more about people different than you and explore the impact of your conscious and unconscious bias on the decisions you make and actions you take.
    • Do something: Do not stay silent. Actively invite a range of perspectives and voices such as seeking out untapped talent and giving them opportunities.
  5. 05

    Recognize that DEI is part of an evolving journey.

The progress that organizations make can have lasting and sustainable impact on their employees and change will only occur when continuous action and a focus on dignity is embedded in the culture. Below is a foundational framework that might help you on your individual and collective learning journey as an organization. Change and progress will have to start with you first before it can happen elsewhere.

  • Desire to learn new skills: One must truly want to be better and learn new and different skills. You want to learn because you want to be here not because you have to be here.
  • Acknowledge it will take time and effort: Stay committed and be patient with yourself and know that it will take time and effort. This means that you will most likely need to make time and exert additional and intentional effort to be better.
  • Be honest with yourself: Be truthful about how you are progressing and continuously reflect on your readiness and seek input and feedback from others.
  • Ongoing self-learning and reflection: This is all about you and how your journey will evolve through continuous self-learning and reflection.

This is a difficult time for many of us. We know the road to eliminate discrimination and racism will not be clear or easy. However, employers can ensure dignity and respect within the workplace, emphasize their commitments to DEI, help set a constructive tone and take explicit actions so that we all make progress and move forward.

As an Asian American, I am grateful for having an opportunity as a leader to be a voice and an advocate for change. Furthermore, I am grateful for business commitments and employer assistance, knowing that any and all great accomplishments never come easily or without uncertainty.


Managing Director, WTW North America Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) Co-Leader and Global I&D Council Member
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