Getting Credit for Speaking Up: Sub-Conscious Bias and Employee Voice

Topic(s): discrimination, diversity, fairness, gender, performance appraisal
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Who gets credit for input? Demographic and structural status cues in voice recognition.
Authors: T. M. Howell, D. A. Harrison, E. R. Burris, and J. R. Detert
Reviewed by: Lia Engelsted

Employee voice refers to the feedback provided by employees to improve organizational functioning. You might also think of it simply as “speaking up.” Not only is it critical for organizational improvement and success, but the extent to which employees speak up can affect the way they are evaluated by their managers. In a fair workplace, the employees who speak up the most would get the most credit. However, not all employees are recognized for their input equally.

In a field study conducted with approximately 700 credit union employees, the researchers (Howell, Harrison, Burris, & Detert, 2015) found that supervisors were more likely to credit employees of certain demographics and status rankings. The implicit (meaning sub-conscious) biases of managers lead them to recognize employee voice differently based on the employee’s ethnicity, gender, and employment status.


White employees and female employees each received more voice recognition from their managers. Managers also gave greater recognition to employees based on status. Full-time employees received greater recognition than part-time employees, and tenured employees gained more recognition than newcomers. Furthermore, the more that tenured employees spoke up, the more they were recognized by their managers. Newcomers, on the other hand, were not recognized by their managers even when they spoke up more often. Ironically, newcomers tend to have the most unique information to provide on how to improve an organization, because they probably bring a fresh approach.

In addition, managers provided more recognition to employees who held certain informal positions. Employees who provided team members with lots of advice or information received more recognition for speaking up. Additionally, employees who were not perceived as a friend by coworkers received higher voice recognition by their managers, but only when they speak up more often.

The study found that the more an employee spoke up, the more managers recognized them for their extra contributions in the workplace. However, the employee characteristics (ethnicity, gender, employment status, tenure, and informal positions) influenced the managers’ perceptions of quantity and quality of employee input. Moreover, even if employees with certain characteristics or lower status spoke up more often, it did not necessarily result in greater recognition from their manager.

More importantly, these sub-conscious manager biases can impact the performance ratings of employees. The study revealed that managers’ recognition of employee voice related to subsequent scores on performance evaluations. This finding has broad implications because employee evaluations that are based on ethnicity, gender, or tenure, could potentially lead to outright discrimination in the workplace. For example, biased performance evaluation scores may then be used to determine promotions or salary.


Overall, some employees may not get the recognition that they deserve due to the sub-conscious biases of managers. This results in less favorable performance appraisal evaluations. Even when employees with lower status speak up more often, they are still unlikely to get the credit that they deserve. This can lead to a downward spiral where less recognition leads to lower performance evaluations, and lower performance evaluations then lead to less motivation and effort, which in turn could lead to less employee input. In conclusion, managers should be aware of the different judgments they make about their employees, and make a concerted effort to evaluate all contributions equally.