Study shows diversity and inclusion efforts failed employees of Chinese descent during pandemic

A new study published April 27 in Harvard Business Review has found that some workplace diversity and inclusion policies ended up backfiring during the COVID-19 pandemic by making North American employees of Chinese descent more likely to be the targets of prejudice and mistreatment.

According to the study, diversity and inclusion efforts focused on the integration of differences ended up drawing attention to the identity of workers of Chinese descent, making them more likely to be mistreated during the height of the pandemic.

Winny Shen
Winny Shen

The study, titled “Why Some D&I Efforts Failed Employees of Chinese Descent,” was co-authored by Winny Shen, associate professor of organization studies, and Ivona Hideg, associate professor and Ann Brown Chair in Organization Studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business, together with Janice Lam and Christianne Varty, two Schulich PhD students, and Anja Krstic, assistant professor in the School of Human Resource Management at York University.

Their research involved conducting a series of in-depth surveys during May 2020 with approximately 250 East and Southeast Asian workers in the United States and Canada. The surveys asked participants about their organizations’ diversity initiatives, and their experiences with mistreatment at work due to prejudice associated with COVID-19.

Fifty per cent of the employees surveyed reported that they had been mistreated at work due to prejudice associated with the coronavirus. In their responses, employees gave examples of ostracism by coworkers, supervisors using stigmatizing language when discussing the pandemic (such as “Kung Flu”), and customers rejecting their service. In turn, workers who experienced these hateful acts felt more burned out, reported poorer job performance, and expressed a greater desire to leave their organization.

“When people are scared and uncertain during a novel threat such as COVID-19, they often look for someone to blame – and during the pandemic, the role of scapegoat has often fallen on people of Chinese descent,” says Shen, the lead researcher.

Although study participants who reported that their organizations invested more in diversity and inclusion policies experienced fewer incidents of mistreatment, this was not true for Asian workers of Chinese descent, according to Shen.

“Our research demonstrates that many workers of Chinese descent have remained vulnerable to mistreatment even in purportedly inclusive work environments, indicating that there is still much to be done to achieve true workplace inclusion,” says Shen. “Companies must ensure that displays of differences will always be met with respect – otherwise, they risk turning the very people these policies aim to support into targets for abuse.”