Three Asian American leaders discuss common challenges impacting this diverse group in today’s workplace and how employers can better support them.

Key Takeaways

  • Some Asian Americans may feel a disconnect between their cultural and work identities, which often results in hurtful stereotypes and can lead to code-switching. 
  • Behaviors toward people of Asian descent in the U.S. shifted dramatically after COVID hit, with many of the ripple effects still being felt in the workplace today.
  • It’s incumbent upon leadership to foster a sincere, invested interest in supporting Asians at work through ongoing DEIB training and resources like ERGs.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 22% of Asian American adults say they’ve experienced at least one of three forms of workplace discrimination because of their race or ethnicity:

  • 15% have been turned down for a job.
  • 14% have been denied a promotion.
  • 5% have been fired from a job.

While more than half of Asian Americans (58%) say they’ve experienced racial discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity, they often get overlooked as an oppressed or even minority group in the U.S.

With that in mind, we held a roundtable discussion with three Asian American workplace leaders to discuss what challenges this diverse group faces today and how employers can support their employees. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

A composite image of the three headshots of the leaders interviewed as part of this roundtable discussion: Victor Poon, AMER Co-Chair of the Indeed Asian Network (left); Joey Lee, Head of Talent Acquisition at Panda Restaurant Group (center); and Anthony Evans, AMER Co-Chair of the Indeed Asian Network (right).
(From left to right) Victor Poon, AMER Co-Chair of the Indeed Asian Network; Joey Lee, Head of Talent Acquisition at Panda Restaurant Group; and Anthony Evans, AMER Co-Chair of the Indeed Asian Network.

How did growing up as an Asian American in the U.S. shape your cultural identity? 

Victor Poon (AMER Co-Chair of the Indeed Asian Network): I was born and raised in Connecticut. My parents are from Guangzhou, China.

I was very lucky; I grew up surrounded by a large Asian community and had the privilege of frequently going to China. I think that really helped me learn more about my culture and solidify it as part of my identity early on. I’ve never really felt the need to shun or reject my own culture. 

Anthony Evans (AMER Co-Chair of the Indeed Asian Network): I’m half Japanese and fourth-generation, so I’m a Yonsei. I’m originally from Oregon, [where] I very much stood out, but then moved down to the Bay Area in California.

Joey Lee (Head of Talent Acquisition at Panda Restaurant Group): I'm half Vietnamese and half French. I grew up in a challenging neighborhood in Los Angeles. It was a pretty tough environment, often marked by racism. Growing up, I faced bullying from other kids who would make fun of me because of my Asian heritage, focusing on my appearance and my eyes. I also remember kids making fun of me because I didn’t have the best clothes when we came to this country.

How has that shaped your experience in the workplace? 

Lee: How I was raised was that you put your head down and worked hard; you're here to find solutions, and you don't complain. Let your work speak for you. But when I started in corporate America, it was tough — I wasn't getting promoted. 

With great mentors, I started to realize that, to showcase your work, you really have to be more vocal. Once I started doing that, everything changed in terms of promotions and being seen. 

Evans: [Asian Americans], as a whole, [tend to] struggle with interviews. Work is so focused on achievements.…Speaking yourself up in that way is an undeveloped skill because we were brought up to be humble and just do the work. We aren't necessarily always able to give ourselves the best foot forward.

What are your thoughts on the “model minority” stereotype

Evans: When we come to work, many of us easily fall into the “put our heads down and just do work” mode. We almost do live up to it in ways but can get ourselves into martyrdom because we take on more and give so much to feel confident and proficient in what we're doing.

It can be used against other minorities because it implies, “Why can't you be like the Asians? Why can't you take on more work? Why can't you be quiet? Why can't you put your head down?” … There are microaggressions, and marginalization happens.

There are microaggressions, and marginalization happens.

Anthony Evans, AMER Co-Chair, Indeed Asian Network

Poon: I feel like you can probably say most people who have parents that immigrate here work just as hard as my Asian parents. It definitely downplays the efforts that others are making. 

Do you ever feel the need to code-switch at work?

Evans: Code-switching has to do with stereotypes, and Asian Americans are not usually seen as “aggressive” or other negative [qualities]; we’re seen as more “accepted” and blend in more.…. It's almost more that we’re having to take on self-advocacy and drive individual career goals and pursuits.

Lee: I was doing the work and my performance reviews were always top, but I wasn't being seen. I had blond bangs and piercings. I started taking all that stuff off, went in and bought a new wardrobe and started changing the way I speak. I changed my name from Joey to Joseph. 

I started to see more progress in my career and get more recognition, but down deep inside, that wasn't me. I was just trying to play the game — to get ahead. 

How can employers support those who may feel torn between their cultural identity and a need to “be someone else” at work? 

Lee: We can always change who we are, but our culture’s our culture — and I will always honor that. As a manager today, I want to create a culture where high-potential talent can actually show up [as they are].

Poon: Whenever I see my manager and team come to events I plan for the Asian Network, it really fills my heart. 

It's one thing to just say it, but really, it's the actions that matter. I would highly encourage managers to make the effort, put aside some of those meetings and go to these events. It's a good way to learn more about your team, some of the things they go through [and] the[ir] culture.

How did you see behaviors toward Asian Americans shift during and after COVID, and what have you and/or your employers done to support them?

Lee: The misinformation — they're blaming Asians for the spread of the virus. I remember watching all the anti-Asian discrimination and Asians being physically hurt. It was heart-wrenching. Employees didn't want to walk home alone. Many decided to work remotely more until stuff calmed down. 

We tapped into our Asian American employee resource groups (ERGs) and shared information. We provided support and counseling. There was a lot more awareness, and we started to see not only Asians, but also other ethnicities and different diverse groups come together. 

Evans: There was definitely a sense of community because anyone could come into the Asian Network and know what others were experiencing .… We had different events where we gave ourselves a voice. 

We also have so many small, Asian-owned businesses around us that were significantly impacted. I created a local business directory, which we then scaled out. So we can create community and support each other in different ways.

How else can employers support the full diversity of Asian experiences?

Poon: We’re looking closer at other cultures outside of East Asia. For example, many of us grew up saying “Chinese New Year.” However, Chinese people are not the only ones who celebrate the holiday; it’s the Lunar New Year. It’s important to ensure we’re using the correct verbiage from the employer side.

When people talk about Asian culture they often think about Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture. It’s vital for employers to recognize this and give other Asian ethnic groups a seat at the table — it’s about making an effort to understand the nuances. 

Lee: In order to have effective ERGs and all these different events, education and celebrations, you need to go through ongoing diversity and inclusion (D&I) training. If people truly want to make an impact, then tie it to leadership's bonuses.

How do you feel about the use of AI in hiring and its potential impact upon Asian Americans in the workplace? 

Evans: My concern is with biases in the way it's built. Somebody who may have an Asian-sounding name could be easily passed over for more recognizable or common American names. There are many different ways that we can fall through the cracks. But there’s also opportunity because, ideally, an objective machine should be able to eliminate biases so that there’s an equal shot for everyone.

Poon: People who aren’t as proficient in English can use AI to help them write and clean up resumes. My hope with AI is that it can lower the barrier to entry for those individuals who might be coming to the U.S. and need help with the process. 

What else is important for employers to know about hiring and supporting Asians in the workplace? 

Poon: As someone who doesn't always take a lot of time off, for example, it’s helpful to have a manager who's aware of that and makes efforts to make sure I’m not drowning myself in work and am taking the space to decompress. 

Evans: My advice would be to challenge your own discomfort, especially in the information age. When you come across a name on a resume that you’re not super confident in pronouncing, pull up Google and give it a shot instead of pushing it aside. Judge based on skills and experience.

Lee: Keep re-educating and supporting each other in every capacity. Create space for employees where they’re able to open up, start leveraging resources and come together. Ask what some of their challenges are and what's currently happening. They may not share with us now, but be constant in that follow-up. 

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