How to Stop Workplace Fear and Racism against Asians as COVID-19 Cases Spiral (Q&A with Chee Tung Leong, the CEO of EngageRocket)

February 26, 20202:06 pm1289 views
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In late December, the WHO office in China was informed of COVID-19 (coronavirus) being detected in Wuhan City. As of today, the spread of coronavirus has led to a more serious threat worldwide. Beyond its health scope, the outbreak has also been rising a negative sentiment against those coming from Asian ethnicity. CNN reported that misinformation and rampant ignorance about novel coronavirus has led to racist and xenophobic attacks against fellow Americans or anyone in the U.S. who looks East Asian. 

Not only in the U.S., xenophobia and racism are spreading across the globe attacking both Chinese or anyone who looks like Chinese. In Cairo, for example, store clerks have been hesitating to serve Japanese customers, and “corona” has also become a new slur with which to abuse Japanese people. China businesses, especially that of a hospitality business, are also seeing the impact of this unethical behaviour. As consequences, such fear and xenophobic behaviour could disrupt business operation and put workplace diversity at risk. 

Chee Tung Leong, the CEO and co-founder of EngageRocket, sits down in a candid interview with HR in Asia and shares some tips to eliminate xenophobia in the workplace. Read on…

Reported by Market Watch, the death toll caused by the novel virus is rising, leading to anxiety, fear and xenophobia over Asians, especially Chinese, both in public and work environments. How can HR step in to help manage the culture of the workplace and negotiate this sensitive tension?

HR can lead with authoritative sources of facts (from the World Health Organization, Ministry of Health, etc) and publish advisories on myths that may be circulating. While it is challenging to police or guide behaviour around an emotionally sensitive topic like this, circulating guides and updates on what acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and protocol can help align culture.

What should HR do if racially-driven discrimination has already happened in the workplace?

Unfortunately, fears of COVID-19 is spreading alongside xenophobic and racist sentiment. People of Chinese or Asian descent have reported incidents where they have been discriminated against in the workplace. The situation is exacerbated by misinformation perpetuated by social media. Looking at Singapore or the Asian region-at-large, discrimination is skewed towards those from mainland China. Some businesses in Japan, South Korea and Vietnam have banned customers from China.

As such, we recommend the following guidelines:

  • Any employee who experiences discrimination – even if it is not directly targeted at them – should be able to raise their concerns to their manager or employer. This can be done via safe and anonymous channels of communication.
  • HR should take the effort to address any racially-driven micro-aggressions such as micro-assaults, micro-insults, and microinvalidations that occur in the workplace. This includes educating the employees of any potential bias and being aware that microaggressions, often regarded as a minor issue, can be hurtful and undermines a culture of belonging.
  • There should be an articulated process for an investigation into claims of such discrimination, with stiff penalties if found to be true. There should be a fair disciplinary process with a reasonable investigation. These need to be communicated clearly and transparently, with an emphasis that such behaviour would not be tolerated, especially during a volatile and divisive time like this.
  • Employers must take all reasonable steps to ensure that their employees are protected from discrimination or harassment and this includes outside sources such as customers or vendors and contractors.

See also: Workplace Bullying Causes & How to Prevent Them

How should HR step up to manage communication with employees when the novel virus has affected the workplace?

Apart from adopting and promoting practical tips such as practising personal hygiene, reducing unnecessary business travel, and staying at home if you are unwell, employers should keep in mind the outbreak’s mental and emotional impact of its employees. There has been a lot of negativity and anxiety in the workplace and this is exacerbated by misinformation.

Negativity and anxiety can undoubtedly impact employee engagement and productivity in the workplace. Company leaders need to communicate genuine care and empathy for their employees and implement strategies that reduce workplace pressure. Employees need to know that the company is looking out for them. Leaders should also approach employees who are anxious with sensitivity and without personal judgment.

To keep the fear from spinning out of control, HR should be mindful not to appear alarmist and over-communicate to the point of instilling paranoia where there was none. Rather, focus on communicating facts and actionable insights while issuing clear policy stances.

What should HR do to help employees that have travelled from China who otherwise might have been exposed to the coronavirus? Should HR direct employees to go home and work remotely?

HR should be informed about the latest medical advice from the authorities and adjust their policies accordingly. Nevertheless, in order to be prepared for possible contingencies especially with a dynamic and rapidly-evolving situation, updating and refreshing the Business Continuity Plan to include remote working and quarantine procedures should infections be detected on-site would be helpful.

In line with the previous question, how do you perceive the threat of coronavirus to both your employees’ productivity and performance? What steps do you do to handle this threat?

At EngageRocket, the health and well-being of our employees is a top priority in situations like this. We are complying with the guidelines from the Ministry of Manpower on DORSCON ORANGE. While necessary safeguards and precautions have to be taken, we are also conscious of the warning from the Prime Minister that fear of the virus can sometimes cause more damage than the virus itself.

In terms of managing workplace comfort for your own employees, what before, during, and after plans have you built to deal with the novel coronavirus situation?

As a technology company, we are set up to enable remote work whenever needed. Any employee who is unwell or suspects they may be falling ill can opt to work from home. Other than that, we continue to be guided by the DORSCON ORANGE advisory. 

Read here for more guideline on COVID-19 (for Singapore employers and employees)

Read also: Coronavirus Outbreak: How to Survive the Pandemic at Work (UPDATED)

About Leong CheeTung: 

CheeTung is the co-founder and CEO of EngageRocket, the Asian leader employee engagement analytics provider that helps leaders and organizations make better people decisions using real-time data.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, he was Regional Director of Gallup in Southeast Asia. He read Economics at the University of Cambridge and has an MA in Political Science from Columbia University under the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS). 

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