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Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Addressing Stigma and Discrimination during Times of Crisis

Early in 2020, when COVID-19 started to spread across the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the public that Asian Americans and individuals of Asian descent may become targets of increased stigma and discrimination in the form of rejections, denial of services, and verbal and physical aggression.[1]

Historically, racial bias, xenophobia, and discrimination increase during pandemics when false narratives emerge that associate the disease with a particular group or nationality, regardless of actual prevalence and risk.[2] Uncertainty, misinformation, fear, and limited resources can bring already existing negative stereotypes and prejudice[3] to the surface and make members of some groups reluctant to seek help and medical treatment.[4]

Indeed, in these already difficult times, incidents of racial bias, xenophobia, and discrimination against people of Chinese and Asian descent in the US have been increasing since the start of the pandemic. The Asia Pacific Policy Planning Council’s newly launched “Stop AAPI Hate” site tracks instances of discrimination and counted over 650 incidents against primarily Asian Americans in less than 10 days.[5] The most recent report counted 1135 cases in two weeks, with women being harassed at twice the rate as men.[6] Accounts range from name-calling and micro-aggression to explicit threats and physical assault. Several news outlets are also documenting negative messages and confrontations. Examples include warnings to avoid Asian restaurants and Asian-populated areas; airline passengers refusing to sit next to someone of Asian descent; and verbal assaults on the street, on social media, and in grocery stores and pharmacies.[7] In the workplace, some report receiving inappropriate comments and remarks about potentially having contracted the virus and, in some cases, being asked to leave.[8]

Organizations as well as human capital and diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders have an important role to play in this crisis. They should support employees facing stigma and discrimination, even when incidents might be happening outside of work:

  • Research shows that the stress and emotional burden of racial bias already impacts the workplace experiences of Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial employees who often remain on guard to manage stereotypes and bias in their daily interactions.[9] This “emotional tax” may be magnified among Asian and Asian-American employees during the current COVID-19 pandemic and affect employee engagement, psychological safety, and sense of belonging.
  • As many organizations have shifted to an “all virtual” workplace for safety and to follow “social distancing” guidelines,[10] workers who are experiencing stigma and discrimination may feel even more isolated and not be comfortable reaching out to their managers and colleagues.

Increasing awareness about this serious challenge many are facing and strengthening opportunities for leadership, connection, and allyship are key. Rebuilding and maximizing access to social safety nets is especially important during times of crisis[11] when leaders and employees across the organization are dealing with unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty.[12]

The Conference Board has collected several day-to-day practices and solutions to help combat stigma and backlash. Even organizations and teams that are not experiencing this bias internally can benefit from supporting employees who are facing the issue outside of work.

We recommend a multipronged approach that integrates solutions for organizations, leaders, and individuals in the sections that follow.

Organizations should call attention to programs and activities that minimize bias, dispel misinformation, and provide opportunities for employees to connect, reach out, and ask for help when needed. Some important actions organizations can take include the following:

  • Communicate consistently and proactively about the facts to prevent misinformation and help address fears.[13]
  • Reiterate zero tolerance discrimination policies.[14]
  • Provide people managers with the information and tools to address stigma and discrimination within their teams.[15]
  • Empower employees to speak up if they witness negative behaviors[16] and engage everyone who is interested in helping to create a sense of community around the issue of stigma.[17]
  • Leverage existing D&I resources such as employee resource groups (ERGs), activities to help address unconscious bias and stereotypes, and guidelines to inclusive behaviors. ERGs can become a powerful tool to engage and communicate with employees working from different locations and address issues of bias and discrimination.[18]

Reach out and ask about the challenges employees are facing with stigma and discrimination Several members from D&I Councils of The Conference Board are engaging their Asia-Pacific and/or Asian-American ERGs to support the community, better understand how bias against people of Asian descent is impacting employees across the organization, and brainstorm solutions. Some organizations are conducting focus groups or anonymous surveys to encourage employees to speak up about their issues and concerns.

Leaders and people managers can facilitate information sharing and maximize communication when working with virtual or dispersed teams. If you are unsure about how to communicate on this issue as a leader, ask HR, others on your team, or your D&I team for help.[19] Examples of actions that help improve team inclusion and increase the likelihood that people will reach out if they need help are:

  • Increasing the number of opportunities for checking in with employees, listening to them, and empowering them to speak up;[20]
  • Identifying and communicating with your team about existing tools and resources to support employees on the issue (e.g., D&I resources, ERGs);
  • Acting as an “upstander” and not a bystander, that is educating, sharing accurate data, and speaking up when witnessing harassment and discrimination;[21]
  • Proactively communicating and reminding your team about the importance of workplace inclusion and respect; and
  • Actively managing online communication and potential digital miscommunication.[22]

All employees and workers While everyone at work is coping with uncertainty and fear, these challenges are compounded for those experiencing racial bias or stigma related to the pandemic. Crisis management experts recommend helping all employees by reframing challenges in positive terms and focusing on what can be learned from them.[23] In the context of an organization or work team, it can be helpful to reframe the issue as an opportunity to build community and a more positive work environment. Supporting those who are dealing with stigma and discrimination can help build a better workplace for everyone. Examples of tactics to improve communication and team culture include the following:

  • Monitor your communications and giving others the benefit of the doubt (assume positive intent) to prevent miscommunications. It is important to focus on connections, not conflict, especially during times of stress.[24]
  • Be willing to engage in authentic conversations about difficult topics, such as stigma and discrimination. Tips on how to do this effectively include showing curiosity, humility, and empathy.[25]
  • When communicating online, check the tone of a message and “emotionally proofread” online communications before hitting send.[26]
  • During times of stress, stereotypes and “us-versus-them” thinking increases while compassion and empathy can decrease. To prevent conflict, be proactive in building connections with coworkers and reaching out to see how others are doing.[27]
  • When tensions come up, consider the fact that this might be due to miscommunication and misunderstanding.[28]

Be aware of “emotional contagion” around stereotypes and bias Negative feelings can spread online, by email, and when speaking on the phone, especially during times of stress and uncertainty.[29] Social distancing and isolation can make people more susceptible to negative emotional contagion.[30]

Other resources Organizations dealing withinstances ofinternal bias and discrimination should review resources on legal compliance and reducing stigma.

Legal compliance

Reducing stigma


This report is part of the larger Human Capital Management during COVID-19 series created by The Conference Board to help HC leaders navigate the effects of the pandemic with their employees. The series reflects not only the latest research (ours and others') but also the comments and insights from our Members as they address this unprecedented challenge. To see the other reports in the series, visit The Conference Board COVID-19 Pandemic Resources & Support for the Human Capital Community.


[1] Reducing Stigma, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.

[2] Ron Barrett and Peter J. Brown, “Stigma in the Time of Influenza: Social and Institutional Responses to Pandemic Emergencies,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 197, Issue Supplement no. 1, (February 2008): 34–37; “Implications of Covid-19 and Bias,” Diversity Best Practices, 2020.

[3] Barrett and Brown, “Stigma in the Time of Influenza.”; Marshall Shepherd, “The Science of Why Coronavirus Exposes Racism and Xenophobia,” Forbes, February 28, 2020.

[4] Social Stigma Associated with COVID-19, UNICEF and World Health Organization, 2020.

[5] Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “Asian Americans Report over 650 Racist Acts over Last Week, New Data Says,” NBC News, March 16, 2020.

[6] Russell Jeung, “Incidents of Coronavirus Discrimination: A Report for A3PCON and CAA,” Asia Pacific Policy and Planning Council, April 3, 2020.

[7] Bruce Y. Lee, “How COVID-19 Coronavirus Is Uncovering Anti-Asian Racism,” Forbes, February 18, 2020; Suhauna Hussain, “Fear of Coronavirus Fuels Racist Sentiment Targeting Asians,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2020; Janice Gassam, “Stop Using the Coronavirus as an Excuse to Be Racist,” Forbes, March 3, 2020; Sheryl Estrada, “Coronavirus: Combating Stereotypes in Workplace,”, March 9, 2020; Queenie Wong, “Coronavirus Sparks a Different Kind of Problem for Social Networks,” CNET, March 25, 2020; Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety,” New York Times,March 24, 2020.

[8] Russell Jeung, “Incidents of Coronavirus Discrimination: A Report for A3PCON and CAA,” Asia Pacific Policy and Planning Council, March 27, 2020.

[9] Dnika J. Travis and Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, “Report: Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace,” Catalyst, February 15, 2018.

[10] Jonnelle Marte and Barbara Goldberg, “Coronavirus Forces States to Order Nearly One in Three Americans to Stay Home,” Reuters, March 22, 2020.

[11] Theresa M. Welbourne, “Fear and Coping: How Employee Resource Groups Can Help Manage COVID-19 Fears,” USC Marshall School of Business, March 18, 2020.

[12] Amy Gallo, “What Your Coworkers Need Right Now Is Compassion,” Harvard Business Review, March 2020.

[13]Reducing Stigma, CDC.

[15] “COVID-19: Inoculate Your Workplace Against Racism.”

[16] Gassam, “Stop Using the Coronavirus as an Excuse to Be Racist.”

[17] Welbourne, “Fear and Coping.”

[18] Laura Sabattini et al., What’s Next for Employee Groups, The Conference Board, January 2020, and Welbourne, “Fear and Coping.”

[19] “COVID-19: Inoculate Your Workplace Against Racism.”

[21] “Implications of Covid-19 and Bias.”

[22] Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, “10 Digital Miscommunications—and How to Avoid Them,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020.

[23] Nathan Furr, “You're Not Powerless in the Face of Uncertainty,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020.

[24] "Flip the Script."

[25] "Flip the Script."

[26] Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, "10 Digital Miscommunications."

[27] Gallo, "What Your Coworkers Need."

[28] Gallo, "What Your Coworkers Need."

[29] Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines, “Coping with Fatigue, Fear, and Panic during a Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020.

[30] Sigal Barsade, “The Contagion We Can Control,” Harvard Business Review, March 26, 2020.


Sabattini, Laura 120x120.jpg

Laura Sabattini, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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