DEI Spotlight: Inclusion at Work Amidst Anti-Asian Violence

Author(s): Elysca Fernandes

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McLean & Company’s 2021 HR Trends Report identified diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a top focus this year, with a growing number of organizations placing a greater emphasis on DEI than before. In 2021, only 6% of organizations said they are not focusing on DEI, compared to 25% not focusing on it in 2020 (N=415 in 2021; N=439 in 2020).

We have seen a broader understanding that organizations’ efforts need to extend beyond increasing workforce diversity (through recruitment) to recognizing inequities and ensuring the culture is inclusive. DEI practices such as addressing inequities like pay gaps, alongside embedding inclusive behaviors into values or competencies, are associated with greater organizational performance (McLean & Company; N=415). As you can imagine, this is not a quick fix. It’s a journey of learning, listening, empathy, and unlearning every employee and leader in your organization needs to commit to.

First, let’s take a step back and define inclusion. Inclusion is a state in which all employees feel a sense of belonging, valued for their differences, and empowered to participate and contribute freely. In a previous article, my colleagues and I covered intersectionality, a concept developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which highlights how differing characteristics of one’s identity interact to create unique experiences, often of inequity. An inclusive organization needs to create an environment where these unique experiences are acknowledged and welcomed and where employees feel supported in their organization … often amidst systemic violence and events with negative impacts outside of work.

One discussion we have with clients to uncover the challenges and points of exclusion at their organizations is to consider the impact of societal inequities such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia on their employees. This is foundational to acknowledging impact, ensuring employees are supported and feel valued for all aspects of their identity at work. For May, which is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States and Asian Heritage Month in Canada, I wanted to highlight actions we can take to support employees through current salient societal challenges impacting Asian, Pacific Islander, and Muslim communities.


The first ongoing step in allyship is awareness. It’s important to set the tone in acknowledging inequities from the top, modeling allyship, and supporting employees in gaining a deeper understanding of the context of the current violence and systems of oppression, which are not new.

During the current pandemic, grassroots activist groups brought attention to the rise of anti-Asian racism through varying degrees of violence and rhetoric in the US and Canada.

  • In Canada, a report revealed there were 600+ incidents of anti-Asian racism since the beginning of COVID-19, with most incidents reported in Vancouver (28%) and Toronto (26%). Additionally, Asian women were disproportionately impacted, reporting 60% of incidents (project 1907).
  • In the United States, Stop AAPI Hate reported 3,795 incidents, with women reporting 2.3 times as many incidents as men.
  • Additionally, scholars and human rights advocates have called attention to France’s controversial ban on religious symbols for its roots in Islamophobic rhetoric and its disproportionate impact on Muslim women and girls who wear a hijab (Muslim World Journal of Human Rights). Here in Canada, a religious symbols ban, Bill 21, is largely perceived to be associated with prejudice towards Muslims, specifically Muslim women, infringing on both religious freedoms and freedom of expression (CBC News).

Share your stance with the entire organization and with your team. Provide them with the resources linked below so they can educate themselves and offer support to their colleagues.

Educate allies

  • Provide training and resources on DEI, anti-racism, allyship, and how power and privilege play out at work. This should include opportunities to reflect on allies’ positions and privileges, personal reflection on accountabilities as an ally, allyship tactics in the workplace, and opportunities to build a personal commitment to being an ally.
  • Share curated resources to bring awareness to current violence, in addition to the existence of systems of oppression outside of the current violence. For example, multiple resources highlight the historical oppression as context for anti-Asian racism in the US and Canada, anti-immigrant sentiment, sexism through restricting women’s freedoms, and Islamophobia.
  • Provide allies with a point of contact within HR/DEI or the leadership team and resources to educate themselves. Clarify that the burden of educating allies is not on employees facing inequities but on the allies themselves.
  • In the US, Hohman’s article provides context for anti-Asian and immigrant sentiment leading to the displacement of East Asian communities in the 1850s, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Japanese internment camps of WW2.
  • Similarly, Canada also has a history of anti-Asian and immigrant sentiment including Japanese internment camps in WW2, 1923’s Chinese Exclusion Act, the mistreatment of Chinese workers, and 1907 anti-immigration rallies in Vancouver, BC’s Chinatown and Japantown, which you can read more about via project 1907’s resources.
  • South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) reported on the ongoing xenophobic rhetoric and violence against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities. They reported that the majority of the incidents of hate violence, 80%, were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment (SAALT). SAALT has been reporting on and tracking hate crimes against the communities since the misplaced xenophobic backlash following the 9-11 attacks in the US. The Pew Research Center has reported an increased incidence of violence against the Muslim community in the US in recent years.

Support impacted employees

  • Acknowledge the additional negative impact of the current violence and ongoing societal inequities on your Asian and Muslim employees, especially women.
  • Offer support. After stating your commitment to support impacted employees at an organization level, from managers at a team level, and as allies to team members, offer to listen and provide support.
  • Share examples of what this support may look like:
    • At an organization level, this can include available wellness resources. For example, project 1907 lists inclusive healing resources for BIPOC, additional time-off offerings, flexible work/location, and organizational and community reporting mechanisms.
    • At a team level, this can look like acknowledging the impact at a team meeting; offering to take tasks off team members’ hands if they need space to recover; providing tools to approach work differently; confronting or speaking up against violence, microaggressions, and hate speech; or simply being available to listen if your team members want to talk.
  • Communicate to all leaders and allies that not everyone will want to discuss their experience. Along with the offer for support, respect that employees may want space to process or room to recover. Not every employee will want to share, and employees from marginalized groups should not be burdened with the requirement of sharing (this is always an option, never a requirement).
  • Create voluntary safe spaces for employees from Asian communities, or BIPOC communities, to share experiences and voice their concerns to leadership. This can look like providing access and resources to employee resource groups (ERGs).

In the long term, we recommend DEI and HR teams involve the entire organization in prioritizing inclusion. This is a long-term journey of prioritizing inclusion, embedding it into the organization’s culture, and embarking on a journey of learning and unlearning.

To learn more about how McLean & Company can partner with you on your DEI journey, please visit our DEI Resource Center or contact Jon Campbell at

McLean & Company sources:

External sources:

COVID-19 Anti-Asian Racism in Canada.” project 1907, Infographic, Sept. 2020. Accessed April 2021.

Hafiz, S. and S. Raghunathan. “Under Suspicion, Under Attack. Xenophobic Political Rhetoric and Hate Violence against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab Communities in the United States.South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Report, 2014. Accessed April 2021.

Hamdan, A. “The Issue of Hijab in France: Reflections and Analysis.Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, vol. 4, no. 2, 2007. Accessed April 2021.

Hohman, M. “Anti-Asian violence has surged in the US since COVID-19. But it didn't start there.”, 6 March 2021. Accessed April 2021.

Jeung, R., et al. “Stop AAPI Hate National Report.”, Report, March 2020 – February 2021. Accessed April 2021.

Mohamed, B. and G. Smith. “U.S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream.” Pew Research Center, 26 July 2017. Accessed April 2021.

Montpetit, J. and B. Shingler. “Quebec Superior Court upholds most of religious symbols ban, but English-language schools exempt.” CBC News, 20 April 2021. Accessed April 2021.

project 1907, 2021. Accessed April 2021.

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). SAALT, 2021. Accessed April 2021.

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