Building an inclusive culture from a pan-Asian perspective

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The surge of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic has invigorated conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion in our personal lives and professional spaces.

By facilitating open dialogue and deeper understanding about individual differences, organizations can begin to actively dismantle stereotypes and build a stronger community at work.

The next step is turning these conversations into meaningful and measurable steps in order to cultivate a truly inclusive environment where everyone can bring their whole selves to work and thrive. 

KPMG Canada and Ascend Vancouver Chapter recently collaborated to host a panel on how to move beyond dialogue and towards action with three industry experts: Dr. Carol Liao, UBC Sauder Distinguished Scholar and Associate Professor; Vandana Juneja, Executive Director, Catalyst Canada; and Lynn Ferrari, HR Transformation Leader. The event was moderated by Rajeev Shankar, a partner and the Leader of Finance Transformation for KPMG in Western Canada.


History of systemic and institutional racism in Canada

Anti-Asian racism is not new. It stems from a long history of systemic and institutional racism that treated Asians as perpetual foreigners and a source of cheap labour. From the Chinese Head Tax to Japanese Canadian internment camps, over 175 anti-Asian laws were implemented to assure the existing colonial hierarchy.

This is not ancient history. Our panelists have continued to feel the  impact of institutionalized racism. 

Growing up in Chilliwack, Dr. Liao was often the only Asian kid in class. As a child of Taiwanese immigrant parents, she encountered racism throughout her childhood and now as a university professor.

Rajeev Shanker, on the other hand, moved to Canada from the Middle East when he was 18 years old. Despite having grown up in an English-speaking society, he still felt like an outsider.

There’s always a stigma associated with anyone that is living outside of North American culture,” said Shanker.

Drawing a parallel between the past and present, Dr. Liao calls COVID-19 racism “the modern-day version of yellow peril”. 

In May 2021, Vancouver was ranked the anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America. This is a stark reminder that our everyday experiences are inextricably linked to structural issues and historical patterns. 

“This history echoes in our organizational cultures and influences us about who we should hire as colleagues, who we think should lead us and hold power in our institution, and whose interest we deem worthy,” said Dr. Liao.

 

Lack of role models and representation at the top

In Canada, 6.8% public company board seats in Canada are held by racialized people, and 23.4% are held by women

Vandana Juneja is currently working to close this gap through her work at Catalyst Canada. Seeing leaders that look like us has a big impact on how we see opportunities for ourselves. 

“The more we are able to have these role models, the more progressive and greater the rate of acceleration of careers we’ll see,” Juneja said.

Growing up surrounded by a close-knit family and South Asian community, she has seen the influence having role models of the same cultural background can make: “[It] has the impact to drive positive change.”

Emotional tax of employees of colour non-inclusive workplaces

Catalyst Canada has conducted multiple studies on the emotional tax that women and men of colour experience in the workplace. The striking finding across all of these reports is that “being on guard” is a commonly shared experience. 

In the research, 33% to 50% of Black, East Asian and South Asian employees report being highly alert to potential bias at their workplace. Even though the majority remains driven to contribute and succeed, over half of the group surveyed reported having high intent to quit and leave their organizations.

In an inclusive environment, workers feel valued for their unique talents and trusted by their leaders and their teams. Just as importantly, they are able to bring their whole self to work and show up with authenticity.

That is why meaningful diversity, inclusion, and advancement are critical in retaining top talent.

“We want to be able to create environments for individuals where they experience psychological safety, both from the perspective of being able to make missteps and mistakes and not be unduly punished for them, and also being able to take risks,” said Dr. Liao.

The business for an inclusive strategy

The numbers have been presented time and time again as to why diverse teams and inclusive practices are good for business. These reasons include higher employee retention, greater productivity and creativity, better problem solving and greater innovation at the organization. 

But diversity and inclusion are more than just a checkbox and a stand-alone strategy. Instead, they need to be infused into the organization’s core values in order for positive and long-lasting changes to occur.

In 2021, companies endured the wave of the “Great Resignation”, where many experienced higher than average turnover and challenges with retention.

In a year that challenged how we work, and who we work with, it’s no surprise that employees are now seeking new opportunities. Lynn Ferrari renamed it the “Great Reshuffling” because the employees are not necessarily resigning completely.

Leadership needs to create work environments where their employees can bring their whole selves to work and thrive. 

Critical component to diverse and inclusive workplaces 

As a former corporate lawyer and now one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, Dr. Liao lists several things she considers table stakes for employers today: 

  • Codes of conduct, anti-harassment, anti-bullying policies
  • Mandated non-retribution policies and whistleblowing channels
  • Diversity and inclusion training including unconscious bias training
  • Gender-based policy analysis and audits

“The next level to me is demonstrable inclusion and zero tolerance policies and the tone at the top,” Dr. Liao said.

Juneja shared some common traits she observed in companies that are doing well in respect to inclusion:

  • Commitment from senior leadership
  • Metrics that actually measure representation
  • Drilling down on two or three key initiatives that are going to address specific gaps
  • Inclusive leadership behaviours, such as curiosity

Ferrari has also seen success in companies that incorporate these traits and approaches as part of their diversity and inclusion strategies.

“We have to action it, actualize it and model it in our day-to-day,” said Ferrari. “Operationalizing these actions will get us there faster.”

Collective action

In order to combat racism and create a cultural shift, changes need to happen simultaneously at both an individual and organizational level.

According to Ferrari, humans are wired to make assumptions so that our brains can categorize experiences and generate responses. These mental shortcuts are based on individual conditioning and cultural awareness. 

Dr. Liao challenges all workers to actively pause and to detect, reflect and reject these deeply embedded subconscious biases.

“Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions, and so again, never forgetting the institutional changes that need to happen, but there’s also that individual buy-in that needs to happen today,” said Dr. Liao.  “It requires collective action.”