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Customers Rate White Male Employees Higher in Surveys, Study Finds

businessstressA University of Wisconson study found that customers show consistent bias in favor of white men in customer satisfaction surveys.

“The results suggest that the customer is always wrong,” says David Hekman, assistant professor in the Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Hekman and colleagues at four other North American business schools tested customer bias in three different studies. One study showed each participant video featuring actors who played the scripted role of an employee helping a customer in a university bookstore. The employee in the video was either a black male, a white female, or a white male; however from video to video the store background, lighting, and camera angle was held constant. Participants were to rate the employee as if they were the customer.

Those viewing the white male not only reported being 19% more satisfied with the employee’s performance, but also they were more satisfied with the store’s cleanliness and appearance, according to a press release. Forty-five percent of participants were women and 41% were nonwhite, says Hekman.

“The results suggest that customers think white men are more valuable than women and minorities, even when they all perform equally well,” said Hekman.

The researchers also reported similar findings after examining less controlled situations involving more than 10,000 patient satisfaction ratings of primary care physicians at a large health maintenance organization. Patients who received emails from their doctor were more satisfied with their doctor’s competence and approachability, but only if the doctor was a white man.

Hekman says that these findings might explain why women and nonwhites make 25% less than their male and white counterparts in equivalent jobs. Over 60% of employees have at least some of their pay directly linked to customer satisfaction surveys.

“Hopefully customers will start looking at employee behaviors, rather than employee gender and race to determine their satisfaction level,” says Hekman.

The authors of the study say that customer surveys are anonymous judgments by untrained raters that usually lack an evaluation standard. They went on to say that anonymity does not motivate raters to reduce bias. Hekman recommends that employers make sure that customer satisfaction surveys are not anonymous and that they target specific employee behaviors.

–Marcia A. Wade

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