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13 Tips for Combating Asian American Racism in the Workplace

How to be an ally to the Asian American community at work

Nikhil Bendre & Aimie Ye

by Nikhil Bendre & Aimie Ye - April 1st, 2021


It is far too often that this country has to deal with heinous attacks against minority communities. When mass shootings, blatant racism, police brutality, and hate crimes are the norm, it truly feels as though every time we take one step forward, we take 10 steps back. Anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States increased by nearly 150% in 2020, despite the overall decline in hate crime rates. Of the 3,800 anti-Asian incidents in the past year, most targeted women. 

As two Asian American members of the GoCo team, we are hurt, terrified, and frustrated at the threat of continued violence and racism in our community. The recent spike in hate crimes is gut-wrenching and the fact that it shows no signs of stopping means that now is the time for action. There is a long history of brutal bigotry and discrimination against Asian Americans that reaches as far back as the 19th century, which only emphasizes the desperate need for meaningful change. If you haven’t already, it’s time to educate yourself on Asian hate here in America and learn what you can actively do to stop it, both inside and outside of the workplace.

We’ve compiled some of the best research and resources available on how to be an ally to the Asian American community at work: 

13 Ways to Support Asian Americans in the Workplace

1. Educate on the Model Minority Myth

“People have been pointing out some Asian-American's career advancement as a reason to reiterate that racism is nowhere, invalidating the Asian American Pacific Islader’s (AAPI) racism dated wayback. When you believe something exists, then and only then, will you be more aware of what you can do to improve a certain situation, or take effect of something, and be accountable for it,” says James Page, Crypto Technical Writer and HR Manager at Cryptohead

James captures the pivotal flaw of the Model Minority Myth. Asians are seen as the “minority that made it”, meaning that our statistical success socio-economically is regarded as the absence of racism and struggle. The reality is starkly different. This myth simply plays into the greater evil of white supremacy and the end result is that various minority communities have been pitted against each other. By passing the narrative of Asian success, some people have started to deny the systemic obstacles and anti-blackness that are ingrained into the fibers of this country. It is crucial that leaders and team members acknowledge the bigger picture and the issues that minorities face in America. Using the Asian community to discount the struggles of other minority communities is extremely harmful to any progress that we are trying to make.

2. Review your hiring procedures

Actions speak louder than words: simply stating that your organization values diversity doesn’t mean anything unless there are active efforts to back it up. As an HR manager or business owner, it’s time to revisit your existing hiring practices to ensure that Asian Americans are granted equal opportunities. Are you providing expanded access to AAPI and other ethnic minorities in your recruiting process? Do your job listings cater more to a certain population? Here are a few tips:

  • Implement bias interrupters in your hiring policies to ensure that Asian Americans will not suffer from systemic racism within your organization. 

  • Adjust recruitment procedures by circulating job postings via diverse hiring websites, listservs, and networks.

  • Revise job listings to remove discouraging language.

  • Create criteria for job listings that avoids bias, including education bias, “ideal” candidate qualities, etc. 

  • Ask the same set of interview questions to all of your candidates, and confirm that criteria has remained consistent throughout the process.

  • Use HR software instead of people where it makes sense to avoid biased screening of applicants

  • Reduce hiring team members from referrals

  • Ask job applicants to omit their names and schools from their resumes

  • Take detailed notes throughout the interview process to ensure your decision comes from information rather than impression 

3. Check-in with your Asian employees

    HR managers, business owners, and non-Asian American colleagues can show support to AAPI team members by reaching out, expressing their awareness of the distressing news, and offering different forms of assistance in the workplace. Instead of creating an emotional burden for Asian American peers by asking open-endedly how they are, you may want to consider lending a hand by:

    • Offering to help on a work project, taking a meeting off their plate, reprioritizing deliverables, or even extending the deadline for a task.

    • Communicating with Asian team members that they can structure their hours or workload more flexibly.

    • Asking them what they need. Rather than offering unwanted advice or guessing what your Asian American team members need, ask and listen. Offer AAPI peers a kind and supportive space to listen in 1:1s, without demanding a response.

    • Expressing your support and willingness to connect them with mental health and other resources. 

    4. Debunk racist stigmas around COVID-19

    One of the most prevalent issues facing the Asian American community today is the stigma that has linked us with the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the rapid spread of misinformation and rampant racism, Asians are getting blamed for the virus. What started off as ignorant comments and uninformed opinions has quickly escalated into violent attacks and killings. Here’s a general rule of thumb: common sense isn’t that common. That being said, let’s go back to the basics and cover some facts about COVID-19 and shut down the problematic, and now lethal, blame game towards Asians.

    The pandemic originated in China. Keeping that in mind, how is it logical to blame every Asian you see for the start of the pandemic? Let’s think about that thought process. Does it make any sense to pin an entire pandemic on the innocent Asian bystander you see walking down the street? Did they personally create the virus? Absolutely not, and taking two seconds to think about this could end up saving their life. The notorious stigma is that Asians are “dirty” and that we must be carrying the virus. Why? Simply because of our race. In reality, Asian people are no more or less likely to carry the virus than any other race. The “debunking” of this stigma basically relies on ensuring that the situation is not evaluated through a bigoted lense. A quick visit to the CDC’s COVID-19 page will provide great resources, facts, and findings on the pandemic.

    Education is incredibly important - especially now. The Asian American community is vulnerable under these circumstances. Making sure that you and those around you are informed on the facts about the coronavirus can help keep us safe.

    5. Enforce a strict “no excuses”/zero tolerance policy

    Zero-tolerance policies on Anti-Asian racism won’t work on their own, but it is HR’s role to truly enforce and stand behind the principles in the policies. Research shows that 60% of Black and 42% of Asian respondents have experienced racism at work, regardless of whether or not a policy is in place. Though every workplace must abide by the federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, not every employee is protected in all situations. 

    As an HR manager, it’s a good idea to create your own zero-tolerance policy, and circulate it yearly to your employees. Asking employees for acknowledgement in your HRIS can hold both parties accountable if you ever need to revisit the policy or the grounds for termination.

    A strict policy should include scope, objectives, definitions of racism and discrimination, responsibilities of team members, reporting, definition of microaggressions, and consequences/disciplinary actions. Common microaggressions against Asian Americans include but are not limited to ascription of intelligence and pathologizing communication styles -- assuming Asians are smart because of their race, or assuming they’re quiet because of their race.

    Stephen Light, Co-Owner and CMO of Nolah Mattress adds, “A strict ‘no excuses’/zero tolerance policy is a must. If someone conducts anti-Asian racism in the workplace, appropriate disciplinary action is required. When we show our employees that we value any race in our establishment, we must uphold respect and establish psychological safety.”

    6. Address the violence and trauma that’s been going on

    Leaders and managers within the organization are in a unique position to use their privilege and address the anti-Asian violence and racism. HR managers and business owners should not stay silent. Dan, Founder of Cirely states,  “Acknowledge your role as an employer and your power over your employees. Acknowledge that this power can be used to hurt and belittle people, especially people of color. Don't put it off on a single employee who may have had a bad day and say, "oh he didn't mean anything by it.”

    It is, however, also important to bring in education and outside resources, particularly when leadership is not Asian American. Leadership can turn to DEI experts, Asian American activists, and history experts to moderate a productive and inclusive discussion. 

    Releasing a statement to your employees as well as your customers can make an impact, when done well. Be sure to avoid gaslighting AAPI members for how they’re feeling or reacting to the flood of tough news recently.

    7. Revisit or implement bias/DEI training

    Before we dive deeper into the topic of racial bias training or implicit bias training, it’s important to acknowledge the general pulse around them. We often see articles around “why implicit bias training doesn’t work” or articles that claim they are a fix-all. The answer is this: a truly well-designed and enforced implicit bias training can work extremely well, but it should not act as a stand-alone tactic. 

    Implicit bias training is extremely effective as long as you want it to be. Members of the organization can be educated on unconscious assumptions about Asian Americans and trained to become more attuned to daily actions they make that may be sparked by bias. Bias training cannot be effective on its own, rather, it must be combined with other strategies like the inclusive hiring procedures, policies, and team efforts.

    Will Cannon, CEO of Uplead, states, “Because of racial prejudice, bigotry can be seen in attitudes, cultural signals, stereotypes, and values. Training, as well as embedding procedures, strategies, and expectations that help build a community embedded in diversity and inclusion, will help organizations successfully eradicate prejudice.”

    In addition to implicit bias training, revisit your overall DEI training efforts, from awareness and microaggression training to skill-acquisition and inclusive management. 

    Nelson Sherwin, Manager of PEO Companies says, “We've looked back over some of our mandatory workplace training offered by our LMS and saw that we could indeed do with more AAPI representation in our corporate training exercises, particularly in specifically calling out Asian-American hate crimes in our updated workplace training on racism and harassment.”

    8. Acknowledge the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the workforce

    It’s easy for organizations to think “not us”, when the topic of anti-Asian discrimination comes up. However, of the nearly 4000 anti-Asian hate crimes reported since the start of the pandemic, 38% occurred in businesses. Instead of performative allyship, it’s important to fully understand the history of anti-Asian racism in the workforce. Sadly, it’s not news to us.

    From the “model minority” myth above to AAPI “success” in the labor force, anti-Asian sentiments and trends still exist in the workforce today. Here are a few key facts:

    • AAPIs are overrepresented in low-wage work. Even prior to COVID-19 times, AAPI members were overrepresented in service sectors with lower wages, relaxed labor enforcement, and dangerous conditions. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884 on, the AAPI community has dealt with wage exploitation. Furthermore, Asian American women have to work more than 14 months to match what white men make in one year.

    • Leadership and promotion potential is disproportionately lacking in Asian Americans. A Bloomberg Businessweek report shows that though 27% of its U.S. professional workforce was Asian American, only 11% of its executive officers were. Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted to management.

    • AAPIs are the most impacted in the recent unemployment spike, by 450% throughout COVID-19. 

    HR managers and organizations must stay educated on the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the workforce to understand how to properly improve existing efforts. Acknowledgement is the first step to making a change.

    9. Address casual racism in your organization

    More often than not, problems come in the form of casual racism. Colleagues may not be motivated by malice or hate, but they must be educated on why it’s inappropriate. Asian Americans are often bombarded with questions and comments like: “What kind of Asian are you?” “Where are you really from?” “You don’t look Asian.”

    Casual racism is often distinguished from other types of racism as acts that aren’t necessarily intended to cause offense, but there isn’t anything “casual” about it. Examples of casual racism include social exclusion, off-color questions and comments, off-color jokes, and commenting on clothing or appearance. Here are a few ways HR can address it:

    • Confront and clarify with the speaker. Responding with a question about what they mean is a good way to allow the speaker to reflect. It is also a good opportunity to provide constructive feedback on the statement they made.

    • Actively call out comments when they are irrelevant to the topic at hand, or emphasize that behavior like that is not tolerated at your company. Be an ally by checking in with the target of the remark or comment in a private setting.

    • Consider implementing an anonymous reporting system, where employees can submit complaints to HR. This ensures the confidentiality of the employees and helps bring attention to casual racism comments.

    Dan Bailey, President of WikiLawn adds, “Slurs and obvious bigotry aren’t the extent of racism. There are microaggressions, casual racism, jokes people have been conditioned to believe are harmless, and a host of unconscious biases.”

    10. Educate on the Asian American experience as a whole

    The Asian American experience varies due to a variety of factors, including region of origin, fluency in English, and socioeconomic status. Something that’s common across the board is microaggressions. This includes racist stereotyping and problematic jokes. The Asian American community often has conversations about this, where we discuss our respective experiences. Comments such as, “You’re pretty for an Asian” and “Where are you ACTUALLY from”, or “Your English is really good” are all too common.

    Another issue that needs to be addressed at the organizational level is the lack of effort in saying Asian names correctly. It’s common for people with Asian names to acquire an alias so that it’s easier for their American peers to identify them. Your name is your identity. It’s extremely important for HR to make the effort to learn the names of those around you in your organization - it’s not a big ask.

    Asians also get shamed for publicly embracing cultural traditions. We touch on this throughout the article, but just keep this in mind - just because it’s different doesn't mean it’s wrong.

    Tom Winter, HR tech recruitment advisor & co-founder of Devskiller, adds, “One of the key things in our protocol is to listen to the people who suffer racist aggressions. If you are not Asian or Asian American, you simply don't understand how the comments can hurt you and whether a comment is making them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In our case, we prioritize the environment of respect we want in our company, even on top of a customer. If a customer is being racist towards one of our employees, we’d rather lose the customer than ignore the aggression.”

    The Asian American experience in the age of COVID-19 can be described as Survival Mode. We constantly worry for the safety of our family and ourselves. We need to be extra vigilant and lay low so that we don't upset the wrong person. We know that we are at risk right now. Business owners and HR can help keep us safe by learning about the Asian American experience as a whole and by stepping in if you happen to witness a racially charged conflict.

    11. Learn what “Asian” entails

    A trend that we’ve noticed as Asians growing up in this country is that many people seem to carry a very narrow view on what and who falls under the race of “Asian.” When you hear that term, the image that comes to mind for many is an East Asian person, someone who carries features commonly found in countries such as China and Vietnam. It’s important to note and to celebrate the fact that the Asian race consists of people who possess different features as well. The South Asian Subcontinent and the Middle East are also a part of Asia, and we see how often that gets overlooked. India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, the majority of Russia, and several other diverse countries and cultures make Asia the beautiful continent that it is. 

    As a South Asian, I can’t even begin to count the number of times my white peers have said something along the lines of, “Oh, but you’re not ASIAN Asian.” This contributes to the bigger conversation HR should be aware of, about not speaking over minorities by attempting to squeeze us into the common (often incorrect) Western understanding.

    12. Review your understanding of cultural appropriation

    There is a stark difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Understanding this difference can avoid major, damaging conflicts. Cultural appreciation is when we learn about another culture with the intent of expanding our knowledge and respecting its origins. This is celebrated, as it brings us closer as a community in a country that is home to all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Cultural appropriation, however, is unacceptable.

    On a general level, cultural appropriation is the adoption and implementation of customs from another culture in an inappropriate manner that disregards the original cultural intent. Whether it’s dressing up as another culture for Halloween or claiming an ethnic recipe as your own, you are appropriating another culture. These actions make a mockery of other cultures, implying that yours is “normal” and “right”, while other cultures are worthy of ridicule. HR should be extremely cognizant of what cultural appropriation may look like in the workplace.

    This concept is especially infuriating because more often than not, the aspects being appropriated are things that Asians are ridiculed for while growing up. East Asians often get mocked for their eye shape, but now it’s the latest eye-makeup craze, falling under the guise of a “fox-eye” look. Asian food is perceived as “weird” and “gross” due to the various spices and flavors that are regularly used. Next thing you know, the latest health trend is a “Golden Milk Latte”, consisting of turmeric. This idea has been around for generations as a home remedy for illness.

    With these examples in mind, note that there is nothing wrong for you and your team to take inspiration from different cultures as long as you credit them and understand their significance. Appreciate, don’t appropriate.

    13. Be an ally

    This is a widespread issue and your support goes a long way. Here are some resources and donation sites to check out! Look at this article by The Strategist for a more extensive list.

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