How Use of Racially Stigmatizing Labels Hurts Employees

diverse group of women at work

The COVID-19 pandemic has come along with growing reports of racial harassment of Asian Americans. One area of concern is the use of racially stigmatizing language when referring to COVID-19 – terms such as China Virus, Wuhan Virus, or Kung Flu. Many people believe that these labels are relatively harmless, however, since these labels can be viewed as a form of racial harassment, it is likely that their use has detrimental effects.


New research (Jun & Wu, 2021) examines if and how leaders’ use of racially stigmatizing COVID-19 labels influence employee outcomes. The researchers conducted two studies to explore these questions. First, they surveyed working adults about their actual experiences with leaders’ use of stigmatizing COVID-19 labels. Second, they conducted an experiment in which they manipulated a message from an employer to either contain stigmatizing labels or not, and then examined participant reactions. 

Together, the results of both studies show that when leaders use stigmatizing COVID-19 labels, there are negative outcomes for both Asian and non-Asian employees. Specifically, leaders’ use of stigmatizing labels was associated with higher levels of moral anger (i.e., anger due to the feeling that a moral standard was violated) among non-Asian employees. For Asian employees, it was associated with higher levels of moral anger and lower levels of public collective self-esteem (i.e., how people believe others evaluate their social group). 

These feelings of moral anger and reduced public collective self-esteem, in turn, were associated with decreased interpersonal justice perceptions, which refers to feeling as though one is being treated with politeness, dignity, and respect. These lower interpersonal justice perceptions were then associated with lower work engagement and higher emotional exhaustion. This pattern of results was stronger for Asian employees than for non-Asian employees.


Organizational leaders should be aware that the words they use matter and can have an impact on the experiences of their employees. Indeed, results of this study show that use of stigmatizing COVID-19 labels may lead to lower engagement and higher emotional exhaustion among employees. Furthermore, these stigmatizing labels may be particularly harmful for Asian employees. The authors therefore suggest that organizations would benefit from implementing long-term bias training programs in order to educate leaders and employees about the discriminatory nature and adverse outcomes of using racially stigmatizing language.


Jun, S., & Wu, J. (2021). Words that hurt: Leaders’ anti-Asian communication and employee outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(2), 169-184.