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Asian American Employees Lack a Sense of Belonging at Work


Two women looking at a computer together at work.


​New research shows that many Asian American workers feel unsupported and underrepresented in leadership positions, lack a sense of belonging and are grappling with skyrocketing mental health problems.

A survey conducted by research firm AAPI Data and polling company Momentive revealed that Asian American employees are significantly less likely than white, Black and Hispanic/Latino workers to say "there are others like me in leadership positions" in their workplaces.

"I think this research casts a spotlight on how businesses need to be more proactive in addressing inclusion challenges for Asian, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian employees," said Rachel Yuen, co-founder of Momentive's Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employee resource group (ERG).

Despite being the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. labor force, AAPI professionals are largely absent from most corporate boardrooms, with only 6 percent of executives coming from AAPI backgrounds.

Linda Cai, an Asian American woman who serves as vice president of talent development at LinkedIn, recalled times early in her career when she was told not to be "too ambitious" or was openly discouraged from ascending the corporate ladder.

"The message I was given was, 'You have it quite good; be content, quiet and keep working,' " she said.

Setting a limit on one's career potential is "deeply hurtful and demotivating to many AAPI employees," Cai explained. The "bamboo ceiling" is often cited by AAPI workers as a structural disadvantage for them in corporate America.

"We are underrepresented in management positions, making it more difficult to speak up as well as find AAPI mentors and sponsors, both of which contribute to lower rates of inclusion and belonging at work," Cai said.

Asian American Workers Feel Excluded from DE&I Conversations

Lacking representation in the leadership ranks, many Asian American workers look to ERGs for camaraderie and connection.

The AAPI Data report found that about 16 percent of Asian American and 18 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHPI) workers participate in employee-led groups or ERGs specific to their racial or ethnic backgrounds—a rate double that of workers overall.

Despite higher participation in ERGs, Asian American and NHPI employees continue to feel excluded from diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs: About 1 in 4 Asian American workers (24 percent) and NHPI workers (26 percent) say they've felt excluded from discussions about DE&I at work.

Joy Chen, CEO of the Multicultural Leadership Institute in Los Angeles, explained that many Asian American employees are not offered networking opportunities, which can lead to their exclusion from workplace conversations—including those involving DE&I.

"It's a hidden problem because most people in power have little contact with Asians," she said. "Nobody actively wants to exclude Asians, but when you don't include, you unintentionally exclude."

[SHRM Online: The Glass Ceiling: Why Aren't There More AAPI Executives?]

Mass Shootings, Other Factors Erode Mental Health

Many Asian American individuals are grappling with mental health challenges. And they're suffering in silence.

The AAPI Data survey showed that just 21 percent of NHPI and 30 percent of Asian American workers rate their mental health as "excellent," compared with 38 percent of people overall. According to the report:

  • After recent mass shootings in California, Asian American individuals are more likely than other racial groups to worry about being the victim of a mass shooting.
  • AAPI communities remain hesitant to report hate crimes to law enforcement authorities despite experiencing some of the highest levels of hate crimes across racial demographics.
  • Nearly 70 percent of Asian American parents express concerns about their child being bullied due to their race or ethnicity, contributing to their mental health woes.

Yet, despite high levels of stress, just 20 percent of Asian Americans and 18 percent of NHPIs say they seek professional mental health support, a lower rate than that of white individuals (28 percent) and on par with Black (22 percent) and Hispanic/Latino (21 percent) people.

"You always want to appear strong and confident, especially when you feel a lack of belonging," Chen said, when discussing why AAPIs rarely seek mental health resources. "You want to try to put your best foot forward."

Mental health resources are particularly critical during uncertain economic times, Cai said. To support the mental health needs of AAPI employees:

  • Invest in mental health and wellness benefits, such as culturally sensitive counseling services that accommodate different languages and beliefs.
  • Offer "mental health days" as well as training on mental health topics for managers and employees.
  • Create safe spaces for AAPI employees to connect, such as culturally specific ERGs to build community and increase morale within the workplace.
  • Recognize AAPI holidays and cultural observances, which are often left off of standard company calendars, contributing to feelings of exclusion for employees of color.

Catering to the needs of all employees can boost recruitment and retention rates as well as forge a healthier company culture, Cai said.

"I encourage everyone to acknowledge the situation [AAPI workers] are in," she explained, "and the progress still needed to create a truly equitable workplace that indexes on safety, equal access to opportunities and a sense of belonging."


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