9 Options for How to Respond When You Experience Bias at Work
This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.
Bias stings. This is true whether you’re caught off guard by a single remark or face a daily dose of ignorance.
Regardless, when it comes to responding, you have options — maybe more than you realize. The tips below (alone or in combination) can help you read the context of your situation, determine your most productive course of action, and take that action in a way that leaves you feeling positive about yourself and the future.
Important Note: This article does not cover responding to illegal behaviors, such as discrimination and harassment. The line between unconscious bias and these illegal behaviors isn’t always clear. If someone’s behavior may have crossed this line, be sure to review your company’s policies on harassment and discrimination, which may require that you report the incident, or contact HR for clarification.
1. Give yourself permission to prioritize self-care and move on with your day, if that’s what’s best for you.
When you experience bias, ideally you’d be able to speak up, feel empowered, and make a difference every time. Often you can! (For more on how to do it in an impactful way, see No. 3.) But if you determine that it’s best for you to let it go and move on with your day, that’s perfectly fine, too. Many people who experience bias pick their battles, simply because it can be exhausting and/or politically risky to try to fight them all. Other times, a slight might feel so minor that you determine it’s not worth your energy.
One simple way to begin to move on is to shift your attention in a positive direction. For example, you can:
- Remind yourself of other aspects of your identity. You’re more than just your race, sexuality, gender, age, weight, or whatever trait took the brunt of someone’s bias. To put the incident into perspective, consider what else makes you you: your skills and expertise at work, your values, your most important relationships, and so on.
- Take a break. A walk outside, brief meditation, or even just a few deep exhalations can clear your mind and refresh your spirits.
- Focus on your priorities. What’s important to you? The more critical, complex, and absorbing the task, the more likely it is that the details of the incident will fade into the background.
2. Think through possible contributing factors so you can better calibrate your response.
Experiencing bias can feel confusing initially. In some cases, you might think, What just happened? Was that inappropriate? Does she realize what she just said?
Instead of blurting out your initial reaction, you might want to pause to sort out your feelings and how best to respond. Also, consider situational elements beyond sheer bias that may or may not be part of the story. These factors don’t diminish what happened to you, but they may help you diagnose the situation and devise a response to encourage the other person to change their behavior going forward.
Contributing factors might include:
- Favoritism toward someone else. Your manager makes a habit of bringing your no-more-talented peer to an executive meeting, giving him the exposure that you crave. As is common with unconscious bias, your manager’s apparent bias against you may really be more about their preference for your colleague, leaving you overlooked. In cases like these, try being explicit about your interests so you get appropriate consideration. For example, you could ask your manager, “What criteria do you use to make decisions like these? I’m interested in being considered for opportunities like this in the future.”
- Careless curiosity. One manager who is black told us that she can’t always tell whether inappropriate comments about her hair looking “odd,” “wonky,” and “different” are due to ignorance or bumbling curiosity. Sometimes she figures that people “don’t have friends of other races and are genuinely curious.”
- Misplaced comfort. This same manager described what can happen when people do have friends of her race and think they can talk to her at work like they do with their friends. For example, a white employee might give a colleague who is black a fist-bump or call the person “brother” or “sister.” Some find such behaviors harmless or even pleasant attempts to connect. For others, it’s uncomfortable. If that’s the case for you, you might hold your hand out for a normal handshake, so a fist-bump is impossible, or explain how the behavior makes you feel (see No. 3).
- Your own unique perspective. Research finds that when three people of similar backgrounds look at the exact same situation, one might see clear bias against their group, another might be unsure, and the third might see no wrongdoing. Reactions are highly individual. Recognizing this can help you put your feelings in context. For example, you might say, “I know that’s OK with some people, but it’s not with me.”
3. Speak up about what happened.
If you directly address a biased comment or action effectively, you’ll help the other person realize that their behavior caused unintended harm — and influence the way they act in the future.
Since most people aren’t aware that they’re being biased and don’t intend to be, calling them a bigot, elitist, or what-have-you probably won’t be effective and carries more risk (though it might feel good in the moment!). In most cases, the person will be more receptive to your point — and more likely to change their behavior going forward — if you assume positive intent and explain how what they said or did made you feel:
“I know you didn’t mean it this way, but the joke you made about immigrants made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the meeting.”
What if you find it hard to speak up in the moment? That’s OK. You can always go back to the person later, after crafting a compelling response, and ask for a few private minutes to deliver your message:
“I’ve been thinking about the comment you made yesterday about X. I was surprised by it, so I didn’t speak up in the moment, but it made me feel Y.”
4. Swap strategies for handling bias with a mentor, peer, or friend who has experience being the target of bias.
While simply venting to a third party is rarely productive, sharing experiences can be particularly helpful when you do it seeking practical strategies for navigating bias.
If you don’t know anyone who can relate to your situation, try searching for diversity-minded people in your organization or professional networking groups. To start a conversation, you might ask:
“Our company’s heart is in the right place, but we still have work to do when it comes to diversity and unconscious bias. Would you be willing to meet and discuss some of these challenges and how we’re each navigating them?”
Once you find others who are interested in talking, maybe you can even help one of them with one of your experiences or tactics. Or maybe they can be a source of referrals, suggesting groups or meetups that provide a forum for troubleshooting.
5. Team up with allies to increase your odds of affecting change.
You aren’t the only one experiencing bias. Rather than go it alone, band together. For example, you might:
- Enact group strategies. Female staffers in one government administration began repeating one another’s key points in meetings. This sort of amplification (“Echoing Janice’s point, I also think…”) made it more difficult for the men in the room to ignore or co-opt their female colleagues’ contributions. Another group strategy: Team up with hiring managers to find opportunities to recruit more diverse candidates.
- Speak up when you see others who are the target of bias. This can have a powerful double benefit: You take the emotional burden off the target in the moment, and your message is more likely to land with the person who made the inappropriate remark or action, since it’s coming from a third party. Shahan Mohideen, an experienced manager, notes, “I’ve built up thick skin in response to negativity toward my faith and ethnicity. But that also makes it easier for me to speak up for other people.”
- Ask your organization to study and take action against bias. There’s strength in numbers, especially when it comes to requests that can be deprioritized because they threaten the status quo. Maybe a group of you can suggest — either in person to HR or anonymously through tools like an engagement survey — that your organization research and publish statistics on company diversity and any pay or promotion disparities.
6. Reflect on specific instances that disprove the biased view of you.
Being the target of bias (especially if it’s ongoing) can cause you to believe that you’re more powerless than you actually are. For example, let’s say your ideas get ignored week after week, and you’re unsure whether it’s because of the ideas or you. You might start thinking things like, Maybe it’s not worth submitting this project idea or Maybe I’ll never get the support I need to advance here.
Instead of letting self-defeating thoughts cement into place, make a point of attacking them with counter evidence. Ask yourself:
- When have I experienced the opposite outcome? Think about the time a strategic idea of yours was met with warm approval, when you were recognized publicly for your work, or when you did receive a promotion.
- Who proves success and happiness are possible in a role like mine? If no role models come to mind, scroll through your professional network or do an internet search.
After you identify these positive outcomes, consider ways to help your talents and contributions be recognized in your organization.
7. Write about your experience with bias.
Researchers find that transferring emotions from your brain to the page can help bring clarity and relief. Did expecting more from a certain individual or your company leave you disappointed? Are you shocked that you’re still dealing with bias at this stage of your career? Are you hopeful this will get better or fearful it will only get worse? Feelings tend to evolve, so consider writing multiple entries.
Writing can also help you see trends in others’ behaviors over time. For example, maybe you notice that the sales team’s comments get a little surlier and more personal after they miss a goal — and this enables you to give more specific, helpful feedback on the behavior. Last but not least, documenting questionable activities is never a bad idea in the event that you need to defend yourself.
If it makes sense, share your story with a trusted colleague, friend, or family member. At the very least, you’ll have an ally. And together you may be able to identify some practical strategies to navigate bias in your organization.
8. If one person is causing you repeated trouble — and you can’t speak up or your words have no effect — try to minimize interactions with them.
Is it one bad actor who’s causing problems? If so, and other options haven’t worked, could you minimize interactions with that person? Doing so won’t change the person’s behavior, but it might at least help you avoid the offenses and prevent them from becoming a toxic force that erodes your engagement at work.
What avoidance strategies could help you sidestep unnecessary communications? Could you move your desk or work more in public spaces, like a conference room or lounge? Some people tone down bias when others are around. If you still do need to interact with the person, could you enlist a trusted colleague who is frequently in the same discussions as you to serve as a “bias buffer” and help redirect the conversation if it begins to feel unprofessional?
9. Seek additional help.
Personal resilience isn’t always enough. Thankfully, you can find other helping hands:
- They can advise you on how to deal with a single experience or a pattern of experiences or even whether it’s time to leave your current situation.
- Your company’s diversity committee or HR reps. Diversity committee reps, if your company has them, can help you navigate issues at your organization. Alternatively, or in addition, consider speaking with your HR rep. (In many countries, HR is required by law to investigate reports of discrimination, so think through how you’ll frame your issue.)
- Counselors/therapists. Search for one specializing in issues around identity and, if possible, workplace/career counseling. (Many companies provide free, confidential sessions with a trained counselor through employee assistance programs.)