Study: Women Less Likely to Receive Truthful Feedback in Performance Reviews

Researchers at Cornell University say that women often are told “white lies” in performance reviews that are intended to keep the review positive. In reality, inaccurate feedback for women can perpetuate inequality in the workplace.

An effective performance review tells an employee a lot about where they can improve their work. If accurate, truthful feedback isn’t given, it can hurt an employee’s ability to succeed.

And for women in the workplace, that’s a significant problem, according to a new academic study.

The Cornell University study [PDF], published in the ‌Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that women are more likely to be told “white lies” in performance reviews in order to make the review more positive, but this does more harm than good.

“Our studies reveal a potential important obstacle for equality,” authors Lily Jampol and Vivian Zayas write. “Given that developmental performance feedback is a ubiquitous and important process in most workplaces and of many people’s working lives, access to fair and accurate feedback should be available to anyone needing improvement, regardless of his or her social group. Here we have exposed one factor that may, to a certain degree, impede this access—being a woman.”

The paper is based on two experiments. In the first, participants were asked to look at various versions of a performance review of an underperforming employee. The feedback in the reviews ranged from harsh but honest to positive but less truthful. Participants were asked to guess the gender of the employee being evaluated.

The participants overwhelmingly thought the harsh but honest evaluations were for a male employee, and significantly more likely to think the less honest, more positive reviews were for a woman.

In the second experiment, participants gave direct feedback on two essays, one written by a man and the other by a woman. The man got harsher criticism for his work but more constructive feedback, while the woman got more positive but less helpful feedback.

In comments to CNN, Zayas noted that inflated positivity can create insecurity and mixed messages, because employees often know if they’re underperforming. “But then if the manager says, ‘You’re doing great,’ it might come off as condescending,” she said. “And that might further undermine her confidence.”

So how can such bias be minimized? Many don’t perceive the gender bias, which makes it hard to change, Zayas said, but managers who want to offer better feedback should be specific and use examples.

Others have noticed this phenomenon as well. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal last fall, leadership professor Elisabeth Kelan of the Essex Business School said gender bias is often the root of the problem. “There’s this fear that if you give a woman honest feedback she will break out in tears, that women need to be protected,” she said. “That’s just not the case.”

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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