Coping mechanisms for bias in the workplace

Chances are, you have probably felt like you have been treated unfairly in the workplace. Sometimes you may feel like you were treated in a certain way, because of your social identity or your background. We cannot control how people treat us, but we are in control of our situational responses. This post will teach you coping mechanisms for bias – personal strategies used during discriminatory or threatening situations — in the workplace.

This post will provide coping mechanism tips for workplace bias to help improve your job satisfaction, well-being, and workplace outcomes.

We will cover four lessons.

  1. Learn about different types of bias
  2. What kind of coping mechanisms do you use?
  3. Engage the situation
  4. How to decompress

As always, our team of psychology researchers reviewed hundreds of peer reviewed journal articles from neuroscience, social, cognitive, clinical, and industrial organizational psychology to determine effective strategies for dealing with workplace bias.


1. Learn about different types of bias for better coping mechanisms

This post focuses on subtle forms of bias and discrimination as opposed to overt and hostile forms of bias. If you are experiencing harassment in the workplace, that needs to be reported to Human Resources or the proper channel of authorities.

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Most forms of contemporary bias often manifest as much more subtle attitudes and behaviors.

Subtle forms of bias can also be understood as everyday forms of discrimination that happen frequently during workplace interactions and often go unnoticed or seem ambiguous.

Some people may want to write off subtle forms of discrimination as inconsequential due to the ambiguous and hard to detect manifestation, but the effect of subtle bias on the receiver is very consequential. For example, it influences people’s work-related emotional and physical well-being.

To illustrate, cumulative experiences with everyday sexism is associated with higher depression and lower-self-esteem among women, and experiences with everyday heterosexism increases anxiety among lesbian, gay, and bi-sexual people.

Some studies even find that experiences with everyday, subtle forms of racial bias predict worse health outcomes compared to major experiences with discrimination.


What gives subtle bias behaviors power is its ambiguity. So learn how to recognize it.

Benevolent (subtle) forms of prejudice refer to seemingly positive, but patronizing forms of bias. Benevolent forms of bias stem from the assumption that a person (because of their social group membership) is incompetent therefore needs extra help and protection.

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Benevolent forms of bias often manifest as…

  • Withholding feedback because they think a person is “too sensitive”
  • Asking a person if they need extra assistance or can “handle” a project
  • Assuming someone does not know how to use different forms of technology

On the surface, these behaviors may seem subjectively positive, but since they stem from the underlying assumption that the person (because of their social group membership) is incompetent these behaviors and attitudes have detrimental effects in the workplace.

Whether people attribute this benevolent or subtle bias treatment to prejudice or not, it still has the same psychological effects on the recipient. In other words, it doesn’t matter if people perceive that they are being discriminated against, because the treatment still yields the same consequences. It is also important to note that perpetrators of subtle bias may not even be consciously aware they are treating people unfairly. 

Benevolent sexism, which specifically refers to paternalistic attitudes aimed toward women, is a common form of gender bias and yields even worse consequences for women than hostile treatment (overtly antagonistic attitudes and behaviors). Receiving benevolent sexist treatment, compared to hostile sexist treatment, is associated with worse performance on cognitive tasks, lower college GPAs, and self-efficacy.

Subtle discrimination is also frequently experienced by ethnic and racial minorities in the workplace. These ambiguous manifestations of prejudice function to legitimize social groups of people as “other” or non-normative in the workplace which has negative consequences for job satisfaction and workplace outcomes among minorities.

Common forms of everyday racial bias include avoidance, and cold verbal and non-verbal cues. Negative non-verbal communication represents behaviors ranging from standing farther away from racial minorities to facial expressions that display discomfort.


Why is subtle bias so harmful?

The ambiguous nature of subtle bias causes people to ruminate, which refers to continuously thinking about the same thought or past stressful event over and over. Rumination usurps mental resources and leads to anxiety and reduced cognitive performances.


2.  What kind of coping mechanisms do you use?

People who experience bias or prejudice are not passive recipients, but instead interact with the situation to produce an outcome. Even if you don’t address the perpetrator, how you internally deal with the interaction matters.

Chronic experiences with bias can lead to negative health outcomes, thus how people respond to threatening situations is important for psychological and physical health.

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When you experience bias or a threat, there are two different responses: 

  1. An involuntary stress response or 
  2. A coping response

Involuntary stress responses include anxiety, higher blood pressure, reduced working memory, and poorer performances on cognitive tasks.

Coping refers to attempts at self-regulation in response to stressful events, and self-regulation refers to the regulation of cognitions, emotions, and behaviors.

Instead of relying on a stress response, we will teach you about coping mechanisms you can use in response to experiences with bias.

First, imagine the following scenario:

Think about a time within the last 6 months you experienced a threatening workplace event. Examples include:

  • You felt like you lost out on a promotion that you deserved.
  • You felt like your manager treated you unfairly or did not give you the assignment you wanted.
  • You overheard jokes that you thought were offensive or disparaging.
  • You were left out of an afterwork event.

Now which set of items best reflect your personal reactions to the situation.

Set 1:

  1. I try to block out or forget what’s bothering me.
  2. I tell myself my problems will go away on their own.
  3. I keep my emotions to myself and do not show them.
  4. I choose to solve my problems in ways that would attract the least attention to me.
  5. I just accept the fact that this happens and I can’t do much about it.

Set 2:

  1. I hold firm to my position and face the problem.
  2. I rely on myself to take action (finding out solutions) to deal with the situation.
  3. I think about the situation carefully and think of options before I decide what to do.

If the first set of items resonated with you, you use avoidance (disengagement) coping mechanisms. If the second set of items resonated with you, you use engagement coping mechanisms. It is also very possible that you engage in both types of coping strategies.

Now let’s cover some examples of what different prejudice coping mechanisms look like.

Problem-focused coping mechanisms involve actively structuring situations to your benefit. Examples include:

  • Affiliate with others from similarly stigmatized groups. They can offer social support.
  • Change the prejudicial person’s attitude through confrontation.
  • Engaging in collective action to stop discrimination.

Emotion focused coping mechanisms typically involve minimizing negative emotions and strategies to protect one’s self-esteem. Examples include:  

  • Attribute poor outcomes to the prejudice of others not personal failures.
  • Increase identification with others who share the same identity.

We are not suggesting one type of problem or emotion focused method is the best one, because your response/coping mechanism will be situationally dependent.


3. Engage the situation

Engagement coping mechanisms are linked with more positive outcomes, compared to disengagement (avoidant) strategies.

For example, among male managers, disengagement coping mechanisms are associated with workplace stressors and engagement coping mechanisms are associated with an increase in job satisfaction over time.

Engagement strategies broadly involve problem solving and emotional expression. We walk you through how to enact engagement strategies below.

If you discovered you are more likely to use avoidant coping mechanisms in Section 2, try following these steps next time you experience a threatening situation.

Step 1. Appraise the situation as in your control.

  • You will either appraise a threatening situation as either in your control or not in your control. If you perceive the situation as outside of your control you are more likely to engage in avoidant (disengagement) coping strategies and more likely to adopt engagement coping strategies if you perceive it as within your control.

Step 2. Accept the emotions you are experiencing.

  • If you feel angry, then accept that you are angry. If you are anxious, acknowledge your anxiety. Even try saying the emotions you are feeling out loud to yourself. Pretending you are not experiencing emotions or frustrations does not help and could make the situation worse.
  • Wait until your level of arousal has decreased before you move on to Step 3. Remember heightened states of arousal don’t last forever. Try focusing on your breathing or feeling how your feet touch the ground or put your hands on your desk and notice that sensation.

Step 3. Make a plan.

  • Spend time evaluating the situation and each of your options.
  • Try writing about the situation or simulating hypothetical situations in your head. 
  • Thoroughly evaluate each potential plan of action and the potential consequences.

Step 4. Try collective coping mechanisms.

  • You are not in this alone. Seek someone who you can go to for advice.
  • Turn to a friend outside of work to vent to.
  • Seek out other people in the workplace who share the same identity as you and discuss the issue. Collective action is also a very effective way to facilitate change.

Step 5. Now apply the solution you picked after going through Steps 1-4 to the situation.


4. How to decompress

It is always good for your mental and physical health to decompress after a threatening or prejudicial situation. Remember experiences with bias are bad for your health, so follow some important self-care steps after a tough day.

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To decompress you can follow these steps.

Step 1. Clear your mind.

  • Focus on your bodily sensations. Think about your breathing. Notice your thoughts but let them pass without dwelling on them.

Step 2. Try to look for something good or positive in this difficult situation.

  • Even stressful situations can provide important lessons.

Step 3. Engage in activities that will help you relax or feel better. Options include:

  • Playing a sport
  • Listening to music
  • Going for a drive
  • Painting

Even something as simple as taking a hot shower or bath can help people destress. Take some time for yourself.

Most importantly, after you have engaged the situation (Section 3) avoid rumination. Rumination is detrimental for your physical and mental health in addition to overloading your cognitive resources. Avoiding rumination is a very tricky task for some people, so the moment you notice yourself ruminating, remember to follow these decompressing steps.


Recap of coping mechanisms for bias in the workplace

We can’t control being on the receiving end of prejudice, but we can control our response to it. The coping mechanisms we choose are important for our physical and mental health as well as workplace outcomes. To start the process of coping with bias…

  1. Learn about different types of bias.
    • Start recognizing subtle manifestations of bias, why these forms of bias exist, and who they effect.
  2. What kind of coping mechanisms do you use?
    • Find out whether you use engagement coping strategies or avoidant (disengagement) coping strategies.
  3. Engage the situation
    • Appraise the situation as in your control, acknowledge and accept your emotions, make a plan, and take action.
  4. How to decompress
    • To decompress after a threatening situation, clear your mind, avoid rumination, and engage in relaxing activities.