- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has urged employers to be mindful of harassment, intimidation or discrimination in the workplace against Asian Americans or people of Asian descent during the novel Coronavirus pandemic.
- The warning, issued in a recent statement by commission Chair Janet Dhillon, directed employers to take action to prevent and correct any such behavior.
- "There have also been reports of mistreatment and harassment," Dhillon said, adding that anti-discrimination laws are as "vital as ever" as employers grapple with the global public health emergency.
Because the new coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that fear and anxiety about the virus can lead to instances of discrimination against those who are Chinese, of Chinese descent or other Asian Americans.
When bias or harassment occurs in the workplace, state and federal equal employment opportunity laws can come into play. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination by employers based on race or national origin, among other characteristics. Although the standards vary, employers can be responsible for harassment by a supervisor or a co-worker.
Moreover, an employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as failure to hire or promote, loss of wages or termination, according to EEOC. If a supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, an employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.
The standard is different in instances of harassment by others. When undertaken by non-supervisory employees or those who aren't employees, such as independent contractors or customers, the employer generally will be liable only if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
HR can help employers avoid legal liability by taking all complaints seriously and promptly conducting a good-faith investigation.
"Honest conversation," education and transparency can help fight stereotypes and an open forum that includes Asians and Asian-Americans (set up in a way where fears can be discussed anonymously) can be useful in dispelling myths, Risha Grant, an international diversity consultant, previously told HR Dive.
If adopting policies aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, experts say employers must take care to avoid stereotyping, especially on the basis of national origin or disability.