A new report published in the Journal of Applied Psychology brings light to the detrimental consequences of using stigmatizing language when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic. Workplace leaders’ use of stigmatizing labels when referring to COVID-19 was associated with emotional exhaustion and decreased engagement among Asian employees.
There has been increasing interest in studying the consequences of racial harassment in the workplace, with much of this research centering on the experiences of Black and Latinx employees. Workplace discrimination against Asian employees remains underexplored.
The coronavirus pandemic spurred a new form of anti-Asian racism that included the use of stigmatizing language to refer to the virus as the “Chinese Virus” or the “Kung Flu.” Study authors Sora Jun and Junfeng Wu wanted to explore how the use of such stigmatizing language in the workplace might affect the experiences of employees, especially when the language is being used by a superior.
An initial survey was conducted among 426 U.S. workers — 220 identified as Asian and 206 were non-Asian. The questionnaire was distributed in late April 2020, about a month after Donald Trump was publicized in the media using the term “Chinese Virus.” The respondents were shown six stigmatizing labels for COVID-19 and asked how often they had witnessed their supervisor using each of these terms.
First, one-fifth of respondents (20%) indicated that their superior had used at least one of the stigmatizing labels at least one time. Further analysis revealed that the use of these labels by a supervisor was negatively linked to perceptions of interpersonal justice among employees. In other words, the more a supervisor used these stigmatizing labels, the less employees felt they were treated with dignity at respect by their supervisors. While this relationship was significant among both Asian and non-Asian employees, the link was strongest among Asian employees.
Moreover, the use of these labels was linked to increased emotional exhaustion and lower engagement through decreased interpersonal justice perceptions. Again, the effect was strongest among Asian employees.
A follow-up experiment attempted to replicate these effects using an experimental manipulation. In August 2020, a final sample of 362 U.S. workers (174 Asians, 188 non-Asians) completed an online survey. Participants were asked to imagine that they were employees at a manufacturing company and that they had received a company email from their supervisor.
Those that read an email including the terms “Wuhan Virus” and “Chinese Virus” reported lower interpersonal justice perceptions compared to those who read an email using neutral terms like “coronavirus.” Unsurprisingly, Asian respondents who read the email with stigmatizing labels reported lower social justice perceptions than did non-Asian respondents.
Among Asian respondents, moral anger and public collective self-esteem mediated the relationship between supervisors’ use of stigmatizing labels and employees’ interpersonal justice perceptions. Among non-Asian respondents, only moral anger played a mediating role. Jun and Wu say these findings pinpoint how racial harassment differently affects targeted employees versus non-targeted employees. Among third-party employees, racial harassment can trigger moral anger that then impacts their working experience. Among targeted employees, racial harassment additionally reduces public collective self-esteem, resulting in increased harm.
The two studies reveal that managers’ use of stigmatizing labels to describe the coronavirus has real consequences for both Asians and non-Asians in the workplace. The authors stress the importance of eliminating this association between the virus and the Asian community, given that COVID-19 will likely be around for decades.
“The words we use matter,” Jun and Wu emphasize. “Words from those with greater power carry even more weight. While nations struggle to cope with the fallout of a pandemic, organizational leaders should ensure that their responses do not alienate, marginalize, or exclude any employees.”
The study, “Words That Hurt: Leaders’ Anti-Asian Communication and Employee Outcomes”, was authored by Sora Jun and Junfeng Wu.