The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed the lives of millions globally, leaving many feeling anxious about what the future holds in the coming days, weeks, and months ahead. It is an upsetting time, filled with uncertainty and doubt. Routines have been upended, economic structures have been destabilized, and companies have been turned upside down, adjusting to new ways of working and figuring out best practices for keeping their workforce connected and safe.
Most businesses have addressed COVID-19 from an operations perspective, reaching out to employees, customers, and communities as a gesture of reassurance. These communications have largely focused on safety, promoting social distancing through office closures and travel restrictions, and offering support resources for employees navigating work from home. Broader communications have focused on discouraging the stockpiling of protective gear and rallying around healthcare workers.
While we as a society work to ensure the safety and well-being of others, we also need to acknowledge and address an insidious sidekick that has accompanied the spread of COVID-19: xenophobia. In particular, heightened racism and prejudice in the U.S.
Rise in xenophobia
The U.S. population includes 20.4 million people of Asian descent, according to the Pew Research Center. It is well known that, in stressful times, xenophobia is a common response. Dominant groups seek to stigmatize “the other,” including those easily identifiable by racial characteristics. In this case, the situation wasn’t helped by the original emergence of COVID-19 in China, and stigmatizing rhetoric, such as calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” or “Kung-Flu,” has only worsened things for Asian-Americans.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an advocacy organization that tracks discrimination, recently reported that before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the organization received an estimated one complaint a week. Since the outbreak, they are recording three to four incidents a day, including both verbal and physical assaults. Stigma hurts everyone by creating fear or anger toward other people and is far more harmful than people imagine. Stigmatized groups may be subjected to social avoidance or rejection, denial of healthcare, education, housing or employment, even physical violence.
In an effort to raise awareness of, and to combat, racism and prejudice, Indeed has several inclusion resource groups (IRGs) led by employees and supported by senior leaders, which provide resources, tools, and programming for employees across the globe. When Indeed began internal communications around COVID-19, we, along with many other companies, focused on operations, keeping everyone safe and informed.
As racist sentiment continued to rise in the media, the Indeed Asian American IRG approached the diversity and inclusion team and asked if there was a way to incorporate more empathy into our communications, both internally and externally. And they were absolutely right. Like most organizations, we’re moving fast to make sure our people are safe, but we know that taking a second to review our communications and adding in this little bit would mean so much, not only to the Asian community but to everyone else at Indeed.
How to respond to increased racism and xenophobia
So, how can companies work to combat and reduce workplace prejudice? Here are three things all companies and employees can do.
1. Incorporate empathy into communications
It starts with acknowledging that public health crises, such as the outbreak of COVID-19, are stressful times for people and communities. Allow employees, specifically ones that have personally dealt with racism or prejudice, to share stories of how they’ve been impacted. This brings the experience close to home and allows for a safe and open discussion.
2. Raise awareness about COVID-19 without increasing fear
Companies should share accurate information about how the virus spreads and what the risks are from associations with products, people, and places. All communication should talk about the pandemic in factual and scientific terms, and information should come from trusted and reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO).
3. Support one another by stopping the spread of hate
Combating racism and xenophobia is everyone’s job. Speak out against negative behaviors, including negative statements on social media about groups of people, or the exclusion of people who pose no risk from regular activities. Be cautious about the images that are shared across social media and through communications, ensuring they do not reinforce stereotypes. Finally, avoid terms, jokes, or memes that create stigma.
This is a very unique time. Now, more than ever, it is important for employees to feel connected and heard. If you are addressing racism and xenophobia solely because of COVID-19 and heightened concerns, you are doing it wrong. Messaging and support for those who feel discriminated against need to be weaved into everything you do and must be consistently reinforced, not just during times of crisis. This is a time for all of us to come together to reflect, slow down, and really support one another.
LaFawn Davis is vice president of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Indeed. She previously spent more than 15 years serving in D&I leadership roles at Google, Yahoo, PayPal, and Twilio.