Law enforcement officials are investigating possible motives in the March 16 shooting rampage across three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent. The alleged shooter's reason for the workplace killings is unclear, though many in the community believe it was racially motivated.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and other Congressional leaders on March 21 called for a "deeper investigation" into the Atlanta shootings and anti-Asian hate crimes in America, including attacks on elderly people in California.
As the coronavirus pandemic rolls into its second year, discrimination against Asian Americans continues. From 2019 to 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by nearly 150 percent in 16 of the largest cities in the U.S.
Early in the pandemic, SHRM Online reported on bigotry perpetuated by people falsely blaming Asian Americans for the virus. Many of these incidents happened in the workplace. Employers need to be careful "when they hear things in the workplace that may seem to target those members of a specific protected class and take proper action, including reiterating and reviewing its anti-discrimination, harassment, bullying and retaliation policies and conducting investigations where needed," said employment attorneys Melissa Peters and Alka Ramchandani-Raj of Littler Mendelson.
Dealing with Xenophobia at Work
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes on its website that people living in the U.S.—including people of Asian descent—who have not recently been in an area where there is an ongoing spread of COVID-19 or have not been in contact with someone who has a confirmed or suspected case of the virus "are not at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other Americans."
Last spring, when discrimination against Asian Americans peaked, Vaneeta Sandhu, psychologist and facilitation lead at LifeLabs Learning, a training and coaching firm headquartered in New York City, offered some do's and don'ts for employers in dealing with racism and xenophobia:
- Don't advocate for someone without his or her consent. Immediately confronting the person who you heard make a biased or hurtful comment to another employee can backfire and decrease the targeted employee's experience of safety.
- Do check in with the person who experienced discrimination: "Hey, Gary, I noticed that Steve made a comment to you about being responsible for the pandemic. Would you like me to say something?"
- Don't call someone out—by calling the person a racist, for example. This is likely to result in the person who made the comment getting defensive instead of moving toward an effective conversation.
- Do share timely feedback to help the employee understand the impact of his or her words or actions. For example: "Hey, I noticed you made a comment to Gary about his being responsible for the pandemic. I bring it up because in these stressful times, I worry comments like these can be particularly upsetting—especially for folks who are of Asian heritage and really need our support right now."