Lisa Ong – COVID-19’s Impact on the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Workforce

 Lisa Ong – COVID-19’s Impact on the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Workforce
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Kanarys recently had an informative conversation with Lisa Ong, president and founder of Wishing Out Loud LLC, about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workforce. Discrimination and racist behaviors against AAPI has been on the rise over the past few years, and the pandemic has only worsened behaviors. Micro and macroaggressions against AAPI in the workplace and in everyday life can exacerbate stress from fear of becoming ill for oneself or loved ones alongside concerns about the economy and job stability. As a progressive society, it matters that we call racism by its name and push back against discriminatory comments, actions and systems. Lisa fully supports these statements and gives advice to D&I leaders on how to best support AAPI employees.

Questions and answers from Lisa have been edited for comprehension and length.  

COVID-19 is having many impacts on society, and there have been some negative impacts for people of Asian descent. We’ve seen our local and national leaders use racist language in describing the virus, calling it the “Chinese Virus”. We’ve also seen physical violence against Asian people. How has this virus impacted your personal and professional life?

“Personally, I’m much more self-aware when I go outside for walks…I’m a lot more aware of my surroundings than I normally would be. The other thing is the heaviness that you feel in your heart. Part of me feels I shouldn’t complain because there are a lot worse things going on. People are dying, people are on the front lines doing their best. Families are making huge sacrifices; how can you say your group is feeling threatened. But I think if you don’t raise awareness of…the hate mongering and the results of what that does…we’re in a bad place.

Inclusion is the antidote to hate and fear. We all yearn to belong and we all want to feel safe. One of the things I was starting to feel sad about, even before the shut down, was the observation  that Asian restaurants were taking a huge hit. People were not visiting Asian restaurants. It goes to that visual dimension of diversity. You can’t hide from the fact that you do look Asian. Having to understand how to have these conversations in a way that helps people understand and not feel guilty, and what do they do with that? What do you wish for them to do differently with it?”  

Kanarys recently posted an article with action steps for D&I professionals to support Asian employees, including reinforcing anti-discrimination policies and raising awareness about how the virus spreads. More than just supporting, D&I leaders want to understand what their Asian employees are going through. How would you recommend D&I leaders encourage Asian employees and other people of color to share their professional and personal experiences related to this pandemic?

“That’s a tough challenge because you have to put your cultural lens on. I share with people that when I first started with the company, I never shared anything about my family because I was raised that what happens at home stays at home. Now all of a sudden, you’re asking about my personal life. That feels a little scary. How do you get someone to open up?

If you’re working with a group that needs trust to open up, you may need to share a story first. And if they are fearful of being seen as the problem – I don’t want to tattle, I don’t want to be a problem – but I do want to be helpful to you, you could ask the question so you get the answer you need. One leader said they keep quitting before I can figure out what the problem is and I said “well why don’t you reframe the question?” 

It takes it away and makes it indirect instead of direct. If I’m trying to make sure I’m showing you respect as my boss and keeping that power distance…I’m more willing to speak up and help if I’m speaking on behalf of others, not being the “whiner” myself. I want to put a caveat, as a diversity leader, that I’m not speaking on behalf of all Asians. I’m speaking from my own experience.”

Many HR leaders are facing crisis situations and budget cuts. HR budgets are sometimes the first to get cut. What can leaders do to maintain positive momentum on D&I with less funds?

“You know I love to talk about diversity on a dime. I don’t want to seed any Asian stereotypes that I’m cheap but when I first started with my diversity practice, I started with zero. When I work with my clients, I assume we have a zero budget. We’re going to build the business case for increasing that budget. When you think about inclusion it’s about getting together and building those connections. It doesn’t have to take a lot of money. 

So I look for opportunities for what’s going well within the company. It doesn’t cost me a lot of money to set up a Zoom call. It doesn’t cost me a lot of money to reserve the first Friday of the month to do a brown bag lunch…I think I would cross the notion off that you need a lot of money to do diversity and inclusion and focus on what matters. It’s building those connections and meaningful relationships to make sure the employees feel heard and acknowledged and plugged in. And, more importantly, that they’re not alone. 

This is the ideal time to leverage your employee resource groups. They’re doing a lot of exciting things on Zoom; things that they would have never probably creatively pushed themselves to do before, which is not costing the company anything. I’m seeing yoga, karaoke, dumpling making parties, TikTok dance lessons.” 

Interestingly, Lisa was hesitant to speak publicly on Covid’s impact on AAPI employees when she was first invited. 

“I hesitated, and the reason I hesitated is [that] my approach to inclusion is always ‘no fear, shame or blame,” she said. “I don’t want people to feel like they should feel guilty for something. 

But I felt personally called on to speak on this topic because I felt like there were a number of individuals who were suffering in silence. They weren’t equipped to deal with this amount of hate and harassment that was coming their way,” Lisa continued. “How do we speak up without sounding defensive? How do we speak up when we’re feeling embarrassed or shamed, and why should we feel shamed?”


We appreciate Lisa for her vulnerability in sharing her own experiences as an APPI team member, her leadership approach and guidance for addressing how Covid-19 is impacting the AAPI workforce. To learn more about Lisa and her firm Wishing Out Loud, visit the company’s website. You can also watch the video of Lisa’s webinar on the Kanarys resources page. 

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