North American customers are more likely to be satisfied with their level of service if it comes from a white male instead of a woman or minority, says a new study.
The research by University of British Columbia professor Karl Aquino found that female and minority employees who exhibited the same behaviours as their white male counterparts were rated lower in anonymous customer feedback surveys.
Aquino, who teaches at UBC's Sauder School of Business, said the results took him and his fellow researchers by surprise.
"We had thought there would be some bias going on in the sense of people who were males or whites would be rated more positively," Mr. Aquino said
"But we didn't anticipate that for performing the same behaviours, the women and minorities would actually be rated lower," he said of the study to be published in the Academy of Management Journal.
Mr. Aquino worked on the project with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, and the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The research was conducted in the U.S. and focused on customers in a health maintenance organization, a bookstore, and at golf courses.
Mr. Aquino said more than 12,000 patient reports on 113 doctors from the health maintenance organization were analyzed.
What's particularly troubling, he said, is not just that female and minority physicians were rated less favourably for providing similar service, but that the harder they tried, the lower they scored.
"It seemed like doing more actually penalized them," he said.
He said it's possible that white male doctors who exhibited certain behaviours were considered attentive or conscientious while someone who didn't fit the prototype of a doctor was considered overbearing and annoying.
Though the research was conducted south of the border, Mr. Aquino said the study's findings can also be applied to Canada because the two countries share so many commonalities.
"Canada, like any other country, has its own groups that are marginalized or viewed as somehow not typical of a particular occupation," he said.
In the bookstore study, university students watched videos of clerks interacting with customers before they were asked to evaluate each employee's performance.
A white male clerk's service, for the same pre-scripted actions, was rated 19 per cent higher than the service from a female or black male.
In the golf sample, researchers looked at feedback from more than 3,600 golfers and concluded that clubs with higher rates of female and minority employees were rated less favourably.
"In these different samples we demonstrated that customer ratings are biased against women and racial minorities," the study says.
The results are disheartening, said Tung Chan, chief executive officer at SUCCESS, a Vancouver-based organization that helps mostly Asian immigrants find employment and adjust to Canadian life.
"People are not measuring competency on its own merit," he said.
"I think people's perceptions are hard to break and attitudes are hard to change."
Mr. Chan said cutting through such barriers and just getting a job can be challenging for minorities.
"I recently talked to this fellow who was the regional director of a major logistics company in Singapore," he said.
"He's sent out about four or five hundred resumes, had four interviews and none of the interviews lasted longer than 15 minutes."
Mr. Aquino said one of his biggest concerns is for employees whose salaries are tied to their performance level, as was the case with the doctors at the health maintenance organization that was part of the research.
He said being slighted in customer feedback surveys could be taking money out of people's pockets.
Mark Startup, president and chief executive officer of Retail BC, said the study suggests it's important for employers to look at more than customer feedback forms when analyzing employee performance.
"I will postulate that anonymous feedback surveys would be one of potentially dozens of factors that a good employer will weigh when setting pay levels and determining promotions," he said.
Mr. Aquino said that's one of the recommendations he and his fellow researchers are putting forward.
"Exercise caution when trying to use customer satisfaction ratings as a primary, or even major, way of trying to determine pay and promotion," he said.
"The second caution would be to think about how you design these sorts of surveys because typically they don't really ask about specific behaviours or things that people might do that are linked to actual performance, but more of a general impression."