The new coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China and has struck the area the hardest. As the new coronavirus cases continue to spread across the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned of fear and anxiety leading to stigma and discrimination against Chinese or other Asian Americans. How can HR and D&I leaders promote an inclusive, non-discriminatory work environment amid growing concerns about SARS-CoV-2?
"Stigma and discrimination can occur when people associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a population or nationality, even though not everyone in that population or from that region is specifically at risk for the disease (for example, Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans living in the United States)," according to CDC's website. The CDC also warned the mental health of stigmatized groups could be compromised amid fears and misconceptions about SARS-CoV-2.
In Philadelphia, TV news anchor Nydia Han penned an opinion piece published in The Philadelphia Inquirer March 1 expressing she was "hurt, disheartened and alarmed" by stories about incidents of discrimination. "My dad does not have [the new] coronavirus," she wrote. "Neither do I. So please don't treat us like we do." She also wrote, "This is not just about Asians. It's about how we as humans default to hate and prejudice when we're afraid and uncertain. It's about how our knee-jerk response to seek blame and to scapegoat is detrimental to our society." Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted Feb. 7 that he supports the city's Chinese community as misconceptions about the new coronavirus have impacted business in Chinatown.
A CDC official announced Feb. 25 that businesses and schools should prepare for the possible spread of SARS-CoV-2, and companies are exploring or enhancing telework options. In regard to potential discrimination and stigma, Title VII legally protects employees from discrimination by employers based on race or national origin, research has shown that racial bias exists. However, racial bias remains an issue in the workplace outside of employment actions, according to research. A survey published in October 2019 by Glassdoor found 3 in 5 U.S. workers surveyed have experienced or witnessed discrimination at work based on their race, gender, age or LGBTQ identity.
According to Risha Grant, an international diversity consultant, a solution to combating stereotypes is providing facts on SARS-CoV-2 and having honest conversations. "Education and transparency is always the best course of action," Grant told HR Dive in an email. "People are scared and rightfully so but it doesn't mean that we should automatically assume every Asian or Chinese American is carrying the [new] coronavirus. It's about as ridiculous as saying that because Ebola originated in Africa that every African American is a carrier."
For more than 20 years, Grant has owned and operated an award-winning diversity and inclusion communications and consulting firm. In February 2020, Grant trained more than 450 Kansas City-based talent acquisition and HR leaders on how to best leverage diversity and inclusion tools to increase the bottom line.
She told HR Dive that providing employees with accurate information is crucial to creating understanding and a safe work environment. "It may be a good idea to have an open forum to discuss fears in a way that provides anonymity to employees so they can ask the questions that concern them," she said. "If a panel is formed, be sure to include an Asian or Chinese American, their participation and honesty, may help to dispel some myths."
CDC offered recommendations to communicators and public health officials to help counter stigma during the SARS-CoV-2 response. Recommendations include sharing accurate information about how the new coronavirus spreads; quickly communicating the risk or lack of risk from associations with products, people, and places; speaking out against negative behaviors and statements on social media about groups of people; and being cautious that images shared do not reinforce stereotypes.