Hostility to Asian Americans: an urgent workplace problem

A survey from IBM found that Asian American professionals are reporting high levels of discrimination and hostility.
By: | June 7, 2021 • 3 min read

Incidents of violence and discrimination against members of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities are on the rise nationwide, and the alarming trend is bleeding into the workplace.

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Stop AAPI Hate found that from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021, the number of hate incidents it fielded increased significantly, from 3,795 to 6,603. Incidents include verbal harassment, physical assault, civil rights violations (e.g., workplace discrimination, refusal of service and being barred from transportation) and online harassment.

Another recent study, this one from the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV), found that the U.S. work environment for Asian American professionals is uncomfortably challenging. In fact, responses from the 1,455 Asian American professionals from 22 industries who were surveyed by IBV (in partnership with Oxford Economics) between August 2020 and January 2021 differed strikingly from those of their white counterparts. Findings include:

  • 80% of Asian American respondents have personally experienced discrimination based on ethnicity or race;
  • more than 60% feel they must work harder than non-Asian counterparts to succeed because of their identity;
  • 74% of white respondents report feeling empowered and supported professionally, compared to just 40% of Asian Americans.

According to Inhi Cho Suh, general manager of strategic partnerships, IBM Cloud & Cognitive Software, while leading Asian American business leaders have spoken out and President Joe Biden signed anti-Asian hate crimes legislation into law, these findings are a call for greater responsibility on the part of businesses. Specifically, she says, business leaders need to be a voice for change and an ally in support of advancing opportunity more broadly for AAPI employees.

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See also: How 4 prominent employers are building gender and race equity

While the narrative of Asian achievement is supported by success stories like Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Sundar Pichai, CEO at Alphabet and Google, the report, co-authored by Suh, emphasizes that this anecdotal evidence masks continued limited advancement opportunities for Asians in corporate America.

In the IBM study, nearly half of all respondents point specifically to discrimination by their employer against Asian Americans. The figure is even higher among the most senior Asian American executives—an indication that the farther they advance in their careers, the more obstacles they may face.

Suh also notes an important reality that many employers may miss: The Pan-Asian community reflects a broad diversity of cultures, traditions, histories and experiences. For that reason, the IBM study divided the responses into two cohorts: those whose heritage is East and Southeast Asian and those whose heritage is South Asian. This revealed a few areas of significant differentiation, including that the South Asian cohort reports employer discrimination at a materially higher rate: 50% of respondents versus 44% for the East and Southeast Asian cohort.

Related: One year after George Floyd’s death, what’s changed for HR?

The IBM study further outlined 10 actions business and HR leaders can take to improve equity and inclusion for Asian Americans in the workplace. The recommendations include intentionally building the leadership pipeline of Asian Americans, investing in training for all managers on identifying and reducing implicit bias, and engaging in regular dialogue with Asian American employees to support empathetic conversations around race, identity and micro-aggressions.

Of all the actions, allyship is at the top of the list.

“Systemic problems such as discrimination in the workplace require systemic changes and placing higher value in strengthening supportive relationships,” Suh says. “These important relationships take the form of not just mentors and sponsors, but also allies committed to building a better future that is more inclusive.”

Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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