How To Support Your Asian Colleagues Right Now At Work

Helping co-workers targeted by hate begins by listening -- and not assuming you know what they need.
The trauma, anxiety and fear experienced by people in Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities carries over into the workplace, too. Above, people take part in a protest against Asian hate in New York on March 21.
The trauma, anxiety and fear experienced by people in Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities carries over into the workplace, too. Above, people take part in a protest against Asian hate in New York on March 21.

Anti-Asian violence has been rising since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and has surged in recent weeks. In March, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were fatally shot in Atlanta-area massage spas in an act of misogynistic racism. There have been high-profile incidents of violence against older Asian Americans, including fatal assaults. On Monday, a 65-year-old Filipino American woman was told, “You don’t belong here” and beaten in front of a luxury apartment building in New York City.

The group Stop AAPI Hate has received 3,795 reports of racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the last year.

Living through these traumatic times takes a toll. More than half of Asian Americans who responded to AAPI Data’s 2020 Asian American Voter Survey said they worried somewhat often or very often about experiencing hate crimes, harassment and discrimination because of anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding COVID-19.

The trauma, anxiety and fear experienced by people in Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities carries over into the workplace, too. If you want to be a better workplace ally, that means doing your own work before you reach out so that your support of Asian colleagues is meaningful instead of invalidating. Here are best practices to keep in mind:

Just because your Asian colleague appears fine doesn’t mean that’s true.

Do not make assumptions about how your targeted colleague is feeling right now based on outside appearances. Your colleague may appear to be doing their job as usual, but that doesn’t mean they do not need support right now. Grief trauma therapists call this mask “social splitting,” when what a person feels after a loss is different from how they act at work.

Trauma can appear differently in colleagues’ performances. Some may withdraw more at work, while “some people get really productive actually and they get very functional as a defense mechanism to protect themselves,” said Deborah Kim, a California-based psychotherapist who works with professionals who experience marginalization due to race.

If you’re a manager, don’t automatically assume your Asian direct report needs time off, extended deadlines or a different assignment without negotiating it with them first. Kim said bosses need to make sure any workload decisions are truly coming from a mutually agreed upon place, otherwise Asian direct reports could engage in cynicism and think, “As usual, I don’t get to make my own decision.”

Reaching out can make a difference. But consider your relationship first.

If you want to reach out to your Asian colleagues directly, consider your relationship first. If you don’t know the colleague well, reflect on if your overture is meant to be genuinely supportive or if your desire to be helpful is just a way to feel better. The intent to feel better about yourself will prevent you from being able to listen to what your colleague needs.

“A lot of Asian American colleagues I’m even talking to now are getting a variety of texts and phone calls from their friends, and some are really meaningful from people they know well, and others are like, ‘I haven’t heard from this person in a year, and did they just copy-paste something they saw on Twitter so they don’t feel guilty?’” Kim said.

For colleagues who get caught up in the need to push their help, Kim recommends pausing and asking yourself, “Am I doing this out of my anxiety to make them feel better?” If the answer is yes, address your own feelings before reaching out.

If you do fall into the distant-colleague category, you can still offer meaningful help less directly, said Joyce Chiao, founder and CEO of InclusionLabs, a company that helps guide dialogue on diversity, equity and inclusion. Offering to shift meetings or offering to take on different responsibilities by saying, “I can sit in on this meeting instead if you are busy,” are some of the ways team members can step up for colleagues targeted by anti-Asian hate, she said.

If your Asian colleague does share with you, let them lead the conversation and don’t invalidate their feelings.

If you are work friends with your Asian colleague, you should still be mindful of not setting an expectation of a response. Questions like, “How is it going in light of all the news?” ask the Asian colleague to put in the labor to give you feedback on that question and can be intrusive, Kim said.

“The invalidations of, 'Well, this isn't something that happens to all Asian people. Asian people are very well off.' Those are all internalizations of the model minority myth.”

- Joyce Chiao, founder and CEO of InclusionLabs

Taking the expectation of a response off the table could sound like, “Just wanted to let you know that I am here if you need anything,” Chiao said. “Something that can invite room for more conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I think it’s OK either way.”

When expressing words of comfort, you should also be careful to not push your own narrative, which can minimize and invalidate your Asian colleague’s experiences. “The invalidations of, ‘Well, this isn’t something that happens to all Asian people. Asian people are very well off.’ Those are all internalizations of the model minority myth and can actually be very re-triggering and traumatic for people who are also trying to process what’s going on externally,” Chiao said.

The model minority myth perpetuates a harmful stereotype that all Asian Americans are successful, and it ignores the structural inequities like the wealth gap, promotion gap and pay gap that Asian Americans face.

If you’re a manager, make options for support clear.

Because trauma diminishes executive functions, Kim said it would be helpful for managers to go beyond simply asking if their Asian employee needs support by instead outlining exactly what resources are available, such as taking a day off or extending deadlines.

“They may have to provide a lot of scaffolding to the employee if they’re in trauma brain, because they’re not going to have their complex thinking available,” she said.

“The clients I have that are in workplaces where nothing is said, that is so hurtful for them. It further increases the injury.”

- Deborah Kim, psychotherapist

When leaders are silent about anti-Asian violence, this is especially harmful.

Employees look to the top when determining what’s acceptable and what’s not.

When leaders are silent about anti-Asian violence, it sends a hurtful message to Asian employees. “The clients I have that are in workplaces where nothing is said, that is so hurtful for them. It further increases the injury around the idea of not being seen and not being felt like you’re an important person,” Kim said.

“The best responses always start with leadership,” said Pooja Kothari, CEO of Boundless Awareness, a company that provides consulting to companies committed to anti-bias and anti-oppression work. She said when organizations do not make it clear that talking about societal trauma and their identities is OK at work, it silences discussions. “What that silence does, it makes people feel this cognitive dissonance. ‘How can I go to work while people from my community are getting attacked on the street because of anti-Asian rhetoric that’s been happening for over a year? How can I even concentrate at work?’” Kothari said.

A better response would mean immediate action from leadership that signals that what’s happening takes precedence over production. “The moment it happens, leaders should be addressing it companywide and either holding an all-staff meeting ― and sending out an all-staff email for those who could not join that all-staff meeting ― and continuing to hold space for it to be digested and acknowledged,” Kothari said. That way, the compassion and care for targeted colleagues can be the focus, she said.

As an ally, you should educate yourself, so that the burden is not on Asian colleagues to do that work for you.

If you are working to support your Asian peers on an interpersonal level, the next step would be to examine what systemic support could mean long-term. “It’s not enough to make statements and to check in on people. It’s really about examining your organization internally and understanding where inequities may be playing out at any given time,” said Amie Ninh, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant based in Chicago.

“It’s not enough to make statements and to check in on people, it's really about examining your organization internally.”

- Amie Ninh, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant

Remember that employees from different Asian and Pacific Islander identities may have completely different needs and concerns at work. “The Asian Pacific Islander community is not a monolith. It’s really important when we talk about coaching, representation and employee support, what does that look like when you desegregate the data. Who is truly represented and who isn’t?” Chiao said.

“The way I’m experiencing this moment as a Taiwanese Chinese American woman, second-generation, in corporate America is very different from colleagues of mine whose parents are refugees from other countries, Asian women whose parents are refugees, also second-generation, but just very different experiences,” Chiao said.

Everyone in a workplace has a responsibility to address systemic inequities, even close work friends. “Are these close friends doing the work of trying to ask questions about whether pay inequity exists in an organization?” Ninh said. “Are people, no matter their role in the organization, thinking about this? Are they thinking about performance evaluation systems and rates of promotions? Are these systems really equitable?”