Customer Satisfaction Surveys: A Measure of Race and Gender. A Measure of Performance? Not So Much

Topic: FairnessDiversityPerformance Appraisal

Publication: Academy of Management Journal

Article: An examination of whether and how racial and gender biases influence customer satisfaction

Authors: D. R. Hekman, K. Aquino, B. P. Owens, T. R. Mitchell, P. Schilpzand, & K. Leavitt

Reviewed By: Katie Bachman

There’s this great line in the 1980 movie, 9 to 5, when Jane Fonda says to Dabney Coleman: “You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” and he replies: “So I have a few faults; who doesn’t?” Keep that in mind when you think about the Average Joe on the street, filling out a survey. Untrained raters don’t rate accurately—that’s why they need training! Customer satisfaction surveys are the epitome of using untrained raters to measure employee performance.

For organizations attempting to become more customer service-oriented, customer satisfaction surveys seem like a good way to measure performance. You might get an accurate rating if you’re White and male, but minorities and women can be hurt by these types of ratings. Bias seeps into the rating process, which is a big time legal no-no, particularly if such ratings are used as criteria for promotion and compensation. In three separate studies—two in the field and one in the lab—researchers determined that women and minorities were consistently rated lower on customer satisfaction, even when performance was the same. Obviously, this relationship was even stronger when the rater held negative attitudes toward these groups.

Additionally, the negative ratings given to minority and female employees also affect customer ratings of the organization. It’s not enough that customers like your employees a little less for being non-White or female, they also like your company a little less.

Why is this happening? Anonymity probably has something to do with it. Surveys almost never ask customer raters to identify themselves so people feel freer to let their attitudes affect their judgments. Also, there’s a lack of standards and training for most of these surveys. Raters without training may rely on their gut reactions more so than individuals trained to focus on observed behavior.

So what does this mean for an organization? Customer satisfaction surveys need to be taken with a grain of salt and probably not used for employment decisions. Customers will rate identical work as less satisfactory if a woman or minority performs it (no word in this article about the double whammy: female minorities). If you are going to use them, customer satisfaction surveys should be tailored to ask for behavioral episodes, not gut reactions and should only be used in conjunction with other, less biased measures of employee performance.

Hekman, D. R., Aquino, K., Owens, B. P., Mitchell, T. R., Schilpzand, P., &
Leavitt, K. (2010). An examination of whether and how racial and gender biases influence customer satisfaction. Academy of Management Journal, 53, 238-264