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When Words are Racial Harassment

What impact does increased anti-Asian bias have on employees? Read on to find out.

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Unfortunately, there has been a lot of racially motivated violence recently – leading employers to finally have long overdue diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations. Employees spend so much of their lives in the workplace. And we know creating safe and inclusive environments impact wellness and productivity. Today, we focus on some recent research on Anti-Asian racial harassment in the workplace. Read on to learn how it applies broadly to all employees.

COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Bias

Reports of anti-Asian harassment and violence are increasing. Unfortunately, we know were this is coming from. Many leaders used anti-Asian language to describe the coronavirus. You’ve heard people say stigmatizing things like “Kung Flu” or “Chinese Virus”. This also applies outside of the political or media spheres. Researchers found that approximately 20% of supervisors in the workplace use these terms as well. In other words, 1 in 5 supervisors are guilty of racial harassment of this kind.

Racial harassment is simply defined as threatening verbal conduct or exclusionary behavior that is based on race. For example, in this specific situation, supervisors harass employees by using terms like “China Virus” to describe COVID-19. People of Asian descent experience this language as non-inclusive and threatening. We all know that the use of this language isn’t actually meant to describe where the virus came from. It’s meant to place blame on and other a specific group. Thus, regardless of any research, using this language at work (or ever) is not ok. But, what does the research show?

Unfortunately, this pandemic has led to increased anti-Asian bias

The Impact of Racial Harassment

We know from extensive research that racial harassment is bad for well-being. No one wants to feel excluded or demeaned. And, this applies to the current COVID-19-related anti-Asian harassment as well. Researchers wanted to understand the experience of employees in work environments where stigmatizing language was used. What’s the high-level takeaway? Employees of all backgrounds feel more exhausted and less engaged at work when these terms are used by supervisors. Employees of Asian descent felt worse but everyone suffered. When supervisors used terms like “China Virus”, employees perceived that supervisors treated them with less respect and dignity. Again, this wasn’t only for employees of Asian descent. All employees reacted this way.

We think it’s important to call out that employees of Asian descent did experience the worst outcomes. And we need to address this issue. However, you don’t have to be a victim of racial harassment to have a negative reaction. Treating anyone with disrespect at work leads to everyone suffering.

All employees in this study felt moral anger at a supervisor using these stigmatizing terms. What is moral anger? It’s the anger you feel when a moral standard has been violated. In other words, when someone goes against ‘what is right’, you feel angry. For example, if someone kicks a baby animal, we all feel anger towards that person. We feel anger because the norm is that this behavior is wrong. I feel angry just typing it! It’s the same for racial harassment. When we see this type of harassment, most of us feel angry because we know it’s wrong. This type of anger and feelings of injustice led to all employees feeling exhausted and disengaged.

Remember, taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, especially when faced with racial harassment!

What Can We Do?

The first thing everyone should do is make sure you are not using stigmatizing language. Stop saying “Kung Flu” if you’ve been saying that! It’s not ok or funny. Second, if you are not of Asian descent, speak up when you hear someone using this language. Or report it through the proper channels to HR. Support and be an ally for your colleagues and friends. Check in on team members if you see this type of harassment and be a support system. This research shows that our colleagues of Asian descent are hit the hardest when faced with this type of bias. Let’s not forget that.

If you are of Asian descent, take care of yourself right now. Report the harassment if you are facing it and feel comfortable doing so. If not, can you lean on any trusted colleagues for support? What self-care can you practice to relax and recover after a hard work day?

Finally, organizations need to step up. This type of language should be treated like any other harassment situation. Let employees know that they can report this behavior. And actually discipline employees and supervisors that are using these terms. Remember, based on this research, 1 in 5 supervisors are using these terms. I doubt 1 in 5 supervisors have faced any consequences for this. Leaders and HR need to do their part to stop harassment in the workplace.

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