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UBC business Prof. Karl Aquino says consumers score women and minorities lower than white males in anonymous feedback surveys, regardless of performance - photo by Eugene Lin
UBC business Prof. Karl Aquino says consumers score women and minorities lower than white males in anonymous feedback surveys, regardless of performance - photo by Eugene Lin

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 7 | July 2, 2009

Customer prejudice: Women and minority employees unfairly evaluated

By Basil Waugh and Derek Moscato

A new UBC study finds that women and minorities receive lower scores on anonymous customer feedback forms compared to white males, regardless of performance.

The study, to be published in the Academy of Management, shows that customers – consciously or unconsciously – exhibit prejudices against women and minority groups when they complete these forms.

According to UBC Sauder School of Business professor Karl Aquino, co-author of the study, the research should raise alarm bells for thousands of North American employees and companies that link employee pay, promotions and hiring decisions to anonymous feedback survey results.

“This study shows that the old saying ‘the customer is always right,’ is not always true,” says Aquino. “Anonymous feedback, if surveys are not constructed carefully, is often more about consumers’ subjective biases than any objective assessment of employee performance.”

In addition to casting doubt on the accuracy of anonymous feedback, the findings may help explain why women and minorities in the United States earn wages that are 25 per cent less on average than their white male counterparts in equivalent jobs, Aquino says.

“This has real consequences for women and minority employees whose pay or advancement opportunities are tied to anonymous customer satisfaction surveys,” he adds. “At the same time, employers may not be rewarding the best employees, but only those who are most appealing to customers.”

The research, conducted in the U.S., examined the feedback of customers in three organizations: a health maintenance organization, a bookstore, and a golf club.

In the health maintenance organization, researchers evaluated more than 12,000 patient reports on 113 doctors. They found that objective measures of performance were associated with higher patient satisfaction when the doctors were white men. Women and minorities received lower ratings when performing at service levels that were equivalent to those of white male physicians.

“It can be disturbing to think that the harder you try, the less you are appreciated,” says Aquino, noting that the more minority employees did for patients, the worse they fared in the anonymous surveys. “This gets to the issue of whether we can eradicate prejudice in the workplace.”

In the bookstore study, participants were shown two videotaped interactions between a customer and a sales clerk who was either a white male, black male or a white female. Although all clerks performed similarly, participants anonymously rated the white male clerk’s service 19 per cent higher than the female or the black male.

Finally, the researchers studied the satisfaction levels of 3,600 golfers at 66 clubs nationwide. Clubs that employed higher numbers of Latinos or woman were rated more poorly than clubs employing fewer minorities and more white men, even when the clubs performed identically on objective measures.

In light of the findings, the research team – which includes scholars from five North American business schools – argues that companies should be wary of anonymous feedback and offer tips to help organizations construct better customer feedback surveys.

Aquino says organizations should make sure customer surveys target specific employee behaviors, rather than opinions or subjective judgments which are highly susceptible to bias. And to increase accountability, companies should ask customers to identify themselves and not use anonymous feedback for pay or promotion decisions, he says.

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Last reviewed 03-Jul-2009

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