East Asians facing harassment: Study

Stereotypes hindering promotions
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2012

East Asian employees who are assertive or speak up on the job are facing significantly more workplace harassment than dominant employees of other racial backgrounds and non-dominant East Asians, according to a study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

East Asians are stereotyped to be competent, cold and non-dominant, found the study. When they don’t conform to these racial stereotypes, they are “unwelcome and unwanted by their co-workers,” according to “Prescriptive Stereotypes and Workplace Consequences for East Asians in North America,” published in the April issue of Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.

“There are two sets of stereotypes. (The first is) descriptive, what people believe to be true — that East Asians are more submissive in their behaviours, more likely to take a backseat in conversations. And the second type are prescriptive and these are basically values, the way we want groups to behave — and they want East Asians to remain less dominant than whites,” said Jennifer Berdahl, professor of organizational behaviour at Rotman and lead author of the study.

When East Asians violate the prescriptive and descriptive stereotypes, they are at greater risk of being mistreated and harassed in their work environments, found the study, which included four experiments with 658 Canadians.

This harassment could be racist comments or behaviours that make East Asians feel excluded or as if they need to give up their cultural traditions and identity to get along at work, said Berdahl.

The aversion toward dominant East Asian workers is negatively impacting their ability to advance into leadership positions, said Berdahl.

“If you’re sitting around the conference table and a Caucasian can assertively point something out and get credit for a good idea and be seen as a leader, that’s to their advantage. And if an East Asian does the same thing and there’s this ‘Oh, that person is unpleasant and I don’t want to work with them’ reaction, that holds the East Asian back,” she said.

Because this racism exists and is a barrier for promotions, there are few individuals from a diverse background in leadership roles, said Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants in Toronto.

“For the company, they’re losing out on very good skills that individuals may have, only because they’re responding to stereotypes or they’re allowing the systemic racism that exists against those people to determine how it is that they grow or build leadership within their workplaces,” she said.

The study’s findings suggest the workplace keeps people in line with racial stereotypes and encourages them to behave in stereotypical ways, although the racism may be subtle, subconscious and people might not be aware of it, said Berdahl.

To combat this, employers should increase awareness of racial stereotypes, she said. As a first step, if they respond negatively to something an East Asian co-worker does, employers and employees should ask themselves, “Would I have responded the exact same way if that person had been Caucasian?” said Berdahl, and if they can honestly answer that question, they will become more aware of their implicit bias.

Employers should also look out for red flags in evaluations or discussions of employees.

“If a Caucasian is described as a go-getter who really speaks his mind and shows leadership potential, and then an East Asian co-worker is described as difficult, abrasive and hard to get along with for doing the same types of things, that’s a real red flag that this implicit bias is creeping in,” she said.

Employers should offer cultural sensitivity training to employees and managers that addresses how to work across racial and ethnic differences, what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace, and cross-cultural communication, said Douglas.

Although we are biologically wired to create bias, the plasticity of the brain makes it possible for people to unlearn and reduce their biases, said Natasha Aruliah, a diversity, equity and social justice consultant in Vancouver.

“But the only way to address it is to constantly be vigilant about challenging ourselves and checking our biases and really making sure we’re doing the work to unlearn — and that’s pretty much an ongoing thing because the bias moves and shifts,” she said.

Eliminating these stereotypes needs to come from a top-down and bottom-up approach, said Aruliah. Senior executives need to provide the necessary resources and display a commitment to eliminating racial stereotypes while employees from diverse backgrounds need to help shape the education, she said.

“Because senior management doesn’t reflect the diversity of the workforce, there needs to be some leadership from the grassroots,” said Aruliah. “So, to help unlearn the bias, to help address the harassment… we need to be listening to and taking some leadership from those groups who are impacted.”

Racial stereotypes negatively impact the workplace in many ways including unnecessary tension, a breakdown of communication and lack of diverse ideas, said Douglas. Employees facing these stereotypes also have low levels of engagement and loyalty, and won’t be doing their best work.

“If organizations aren’t paying attention to the subtleties of racial stereotypes, it can create a toxic environment,” said Aruliah. “What you will see is higher absenteeism, lower productivity, higher staff turnover.”

Productivity and creativity levels are higher at organizations that have diverse teams and leadership, she said. Having a diverse workforce also enables a company to better reflect the Canadian population and serve clients’ needs.

With global competition for highly skilled workers increasing, potential employees will also appreciate a bias-free culture that promotes diversity, said Douglas.

“It absolutely makes good business sense to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and has the opportunity to shine, to work toward their full potential,” she said. “Multiculturalism is not just a thought, it’s an action — employers have to be proactive and intentional in creating an inclusive environment.”

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