What Your Asian Employees Need Right Now
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings and with acts of anti-Asian racism on the rise in the U.S., the author spoke to a number of employees about how their companies have reacted so far. They offered a diverse set of responses, although the majority said they wanted their employers to do more. Based on these responses the author identified a set of best practices, including: 1) Acknowledge what’s happening. The most common theme among the respondents was surprise and or disappointment at silence from leadership. 2) Be available. Not everyone on your team will have the same response: Some may want to talk about it; others may not. Just let everyone know your door is open. 3) Discuss. Offer a public forum to provide support and to talk about particular issues faced by employees; for example, one company discussed ways to make employees feel safe while commuting. 4) Commit. Share your long-term plans to combat racism at the societal level, as well as your company’s concrete DE&I commitments.
In the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings and the skyrocketing increase of hate crimes against Asian Americans (nearly 150% in 2020), I waited for an outpouring of corporate messages in support of #StopAsianHate.
I was optimistic, given how many companies renewed their commitment to diversity and social justice last summer in reaction to #BlackLivesMatter. Instead, the response seems to have been mixed. Some organizations have done a great job, including Etsy, which donated $500,000 to support AAPI communities and implemented bystander training for American employees, and Coca-Cola which donated $1.85 million to AAPI organizations. Others have floundered by remaining silent.
I wanted to understand how employees were feeling about these mixed results, and so I reached out to my networks, and interviewed people via Zoom about how they felt about their employer’s actions in response to the rise in anti-Asian racism. I received an outpouring of replies from friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances. The majority of the respondents were Asian American, and overall, employees — both Asian Americans and otherwise — wished their employers had done more.
Xavier* is Asian American and works in the corporate communications department of a large health care company. He drafted a message from the CEO condemning the shootings and standing in support of the Asian American community. Instead, the CEO opted to send a missive on the company’s performance. “How do can I keep being the voice of the company for someone who doesn’t even see me?” Xavier wondered. He’s currently looking for new jobs.
By contrast, Wendy, who is also Asian American, recently joined a tech firm and was impressed by her employer’s response. Even before the Atlanta shootings, her firm had posted a message about the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. After the shootings, they posted a message on LinkedIn, created an employee forum for discussion, and made a donation to a group that supports Asian Americans. Wendy had received multiple offers when she was on the job hunt, and her company’s response confirmed she’d picked the right one.
D, an Asian American partner at a midsize consulting firm who leads his company’s DE&I efforts, said that in the wake of the shooting, company leadership debated how best to respond and opted to go with what was best for their employees. They reasoned internal outreach would be more helpful than posting a message on their website. Senior leaders sent out a message to all employees and also emailed line managers to let them know some employees would be struggling.
And employees are struggling. Kelly, an Asian American who works at a tech firm, said that she’s getting racially harassed when she leaves the house, and she worries about her grandmother. Meanwhile, her employer issued no statements about the rising anti-Asian sentiment. “We’re just getting more and more of these verbal insults,” she said. “And to see no support from my company? It honestly doesn’t feel the best.”
After speaking to the employees mentioned in this article and others, I developed this set of best practices for senior leaders and managers, based on either actions their companies took, or actions they wished their company had taken:
The most common theme I heard from employees was surprise over leaders being silent, or disappointment that only the CEO had spoken up. They wondered what the silence meant.
Leaders up and down the chain of command should send a clear and firm message that anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are unacceptable and that they stand in support of the AAPI community. Don’t stay silent, dilute the message, or hide behind the diversity office. A favorite among the people I spoke to was Hubspot’s unequivocal Instagram post which simply read: “We stand in solidarity with Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. We always have. We always will. Period. #StopAAPIHate.”
I spoke to a Hispanic employee at a major university who was shocked because while the president of the university sent out a message after the Atlanta shootings, the head of her school said nothing despite the school’s high Asian population. The employee, who has since left for other reasons, said she thought the lack of response was indicative of an overall attitude towards race in the organization.
An Asian American employee at a biotech firm mentioned feeling let down because his company sent out one email from the diversity office, and it wasn’t signed by any visible leaders or anyone he knew. “I’m happy to have strangers reach out and be supportive, but I wish it wasn’t just strangers,” he said. He also pointed out that several of his managers who hadn’t commented on #StopAsianHate had pride stickers and “support BLM” in their email signatures, which made him question the authenticity of their commitment to social justice.
Support can come in many forms, whether it’s letting the team know that your door is open, allowing people to take time off to process their feelings, or simply giving them their space. Not everyone on your team will have the same response. An Asian pathologist I spoke to mentioned she would have felt uncomfortable if she’d been asked to share her feelings at work. A programmer said if he wanted to have a discussion, he would have liked to have it with his direct manager.
To meet this range of needs, let everyone on your team know the resources that are available and that you’re available if they want to talk. That way, employees who want and need support can initiate a discussion. This will also avoid singling out or tokenizing team members based on their race. Remember also that it may not be immediately obvious who on your team has ties to the AAPI community or is struggling: Some of the people I interviewed were not of AAPI descent but had spouses of AAPI descent. A hate crime impacts the entire community.
Create a voluntary space for a discussion. Some employees may want to talk about how they are feeling, while others may not. A white law associate was disappointed that her firm hadn’t created a space for discussion, particularly since they’d created well-thought-out programming for Black Lives Matter. An Asian American designer at a different company said she was grateful her organization had a discussion forum, because it brought everyone closer together. While the designer’s boss hadn’t personally said anything to her, she said seeing them at the company discussion made her feel supported. An Asian American health care employee mentioned that he didn’t attend his company’s discussion but knowing that it was there made him feel like the company took racial disparities seriously.
At Wendy’s company, employees ended up discussing ways to make employees feel safe while commuting, a fear that Wendy had had long before the Atlanta shootings. “Now I feel like the door is open for addressing that concern,” she said.
Several employees wanted to know about their company’s long-term plan to make a greater change in society. What this looks like will vary from company to company. “I genuinely enjoy my job, but what does it mean to ethically move through the world?” a law associate asked. She wished her company had made donations to groups supporting the AAPI community, while a manager at a pharma company was impressed by his company’s willingness to send out a message immediately.
They also both wanted to know more about their company’s long-term commitment to DE&I. Cultural sensitivity training? Improve hiring practices? More representation at the C-suite level?
D, the partner at the consulting firm who lead DE&I for his company commented that in the long run, the most important step was for companies to think about how to make long-term changes to eradicate systemic biases. “We have to change as a firm, but like any change in corporate culture, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So, we need to be committed to this for years.”
Taking a strong stance against anti-Asian racism should be non-controversial and is an easy way to show compassion, make employees feel supported, and earn trust. Failing to do so shows callousness, and at worst can result in losing employee trust, as Xavier’s story shows. Research shows that 68% of Americans expect corporations to take a stance on social issues. Remaining silent in the face of injustice is no longer a viable option.
*We identified employees using pseudonyms and first initials to protect their privacy.