Interesting research suggests we’re more likely to tell white lies to women in the workplace. While this might spare their feelings in the short-term, in the long run it’s doing them no good.
The odd white lie is only human.
“Nonsense, you don’t look like you’re having a mid-life crisis,” you say to your friend who’s sporting an ill-advised polka-dot fedora. “This (grey and lumpy) gravy is delicious!” you tell your Nan, just so you can see her smile. But when white lies spill over into workplace feedback, they can impact an employee’s job performance and opportunities for growth – and that’s in no one’s best interests.
New research from Cornell University suggests women who are underperforming at work are more likely to receive softer, kinder feedback than their male counterparts. And in the long run, these gendered white lies can hurt women’s careers.
The research, published in Sage Journals ‘Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin’, includes two separate studies. The first looks at people’s beliefs about the prevalence of white lies during professional feedback to women. The second looks at whether people are more likely to tell a white lie to an underperforming woman (as opposed to a man) during a face-to-face performance assessment. Here’s what the researchers found.
Socially ingrained bias
In the first study, 182 respondents (113 of which were female) were asked to read six versions of feedback from a hypothetical manager to an underperforming employee. They had access to the manager’s genuine assessment as well as the version of the feedback given to the employee.
The six options varied in tone, beginning with option one – the most truthful and harsh – through to option six, the gentlest and kindest, but also the least truthful (the white lie). Option one was the closest to the manager’s genuine evaluation. Based on the six options, participants were then asked to guess whether the employee was male or female.
“Because people are typically good at picking up on systemic or socially ingrained biases,” say the researchers, “we reasoned that when the feedback was kinder but less truthful, participants would assume the employee was a woman.”
The results of the study bore this assumption out. Overwhelmingly, participants guessed that the white lies were told to women.
Interestingly, participants who assumed the person receiving the “kinder” feedback was female also perceived her to be less confident. They also suggested that the manager considered the female employee to be warmer which, the researchers say, “is consistent with past work showing that those who elicit compassion are more likely to be told white lies”.
The second study focused on whether people would be more likely to tell white lies to an underperforming woman (compared with a man) when giving face-to-face feedback.
Sixty-eight university students were given the task of grading a purposefully poorly-written essay and were given no clue as to the gender of the writer – all that was provided was their initials. Participants gave their feedback to the researcher, not the writer. After submitting their first assessments, participants were then told the gender of the writer and asked to provide feedback directly to that person. When giving feedback to a woman, participants tended to raise their original grade by about 9 per cent.
When the writer was believed to be a man, the grades remained consistent with the first assessment.
“At the end of the study, the majority (65 per cent) of participants reported that they had changed their initial evaluation when they had to provide direct feedback to the writers, reflecting an awareness of having lied,” the report says. “Importantly, however, people seemed unaware that their feedback differed as a function of the gender of the writer: When asked what percentage of their feedback was truthful, participants reported providing equally truthful feedback to “Sarah” and “Andrew”.
But why is gender bias creeping into workplace feedback? The researchers have a few interesting suggestions. One is about ‘self-presentation’ concerns.
“In past work, researchers have found that people were more likely to omit negative information when describing low-powered individuals to others, especially when the act was in a more public versus personal setting,” the paper reads. “Such omissions are motivated by the desire to not want to appear to denigrate individuals from low-powered groups. Most pertinent to our work is research on performance feedback to marginalised racial groups, where researchers found that White participants provided more positive feedback to Black (vs. White) students because they did not want to appear biased in their evaluation.”
Ensuring feedback is gender neutral
Sally Woolford, business director at HR consultancy, Making Work Absolutely Human (MWAH), says managers should make sure they are not “winging it” in performance conversations.
“There is nothing worse than a copy-and-paste approach. It has to be about the individual and their performance relative to the team and the client they’re working for,” she says.
“You have to prepare for the individual, set time-driven goals that are really specific so you can measure, score or rate them against their individual performance and the broader organisation’s goals.”
She also recommends taking active steps to appraise your own bias.
Woolford says there are three questions HR professionals should ask themselves when providing feedback to any employee, male or female: am I being fair? Is this feedback honest? And is this helpful to the person?
“But feedback is also a two-way street,” she says. “At the end of a feedback session, ask them if they thought it was fair, honest and valuable too.”
Rapport means greater honesty
Gendered white lies can also be avoided by building rapport, says Woolford.
“If you have frequent, ongoing conversations to give feedback, you’re probably going to have a much more comfortable and honest conversation,” she says.
“If you only have a six-monthly or yearly appraisal, you won’t have that connection, which might lead to a less honest appraisal. If you’re being honest, you’re going to see a performance increase.”
She adds, “Kinder feedback towards women is actually creating harm. Most people just want to know how they’re travelling. The more often we have the awkward conversations, the easier they become and we help the employee actually grow [and develop in their career].”