It’s not uncommon to tell a white lie at work: why you took a slightly too-long lunch break or how much you’ve really done on that big project. Often, white lies are socially useful — telling someone that you like what they’re wearing is probably a kinder option than admitting that you hate it, for example.
When it comes to performance reviews, however, white lies are less beneficial. The whole point of such a review is to help improve how someone is working and identify and mitigate potential problems, so lying defeats the object. And according to a new study from Cornell University’s Lily Jampol and Vivian Zayas, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it’s women who most often bear the brunt of untruthful performance reviews.
To build on previous research suggesting that women and men receive different kinds of performance evaluations, the team recruited 182 participants who read a hypothetical scenario in which a manager was giving feedback to an underperforming employee. They learnt that the manager had six feedback options to choose from, ranging from the most truthful and harshest statement (which most closely matched the manager’s actual evaluation of the employee’s poor performance), to the nicest but least truthful statement. Participants were randomly assigned to one of six conditions in which they saw a check mark next to the feedback that was actually given.
Participants then guessed whether the employee was male or female, and were asked to indicate what the manager’s perceptions were of the worker’s warmth, sincerity, confidence and competence. They also rated how likely the manager would be to assign an important task to the employee in the future.
As expected, participants tended to assume that employees shown less accurate but kinder feedback were women: two-thirds of participants believed that an employee given the least truthful but nicest evaluation was a woman, for instance, while just 7% thought that an employee given the most truthful and harshest feedback was female. Results also suggested some stereotyping around gender and traits: those who believed the employee was a woman also believed that the manager perceived her to be less confident, and as feedback got kinder and less accurate were more likely to assume the manager perceived her as warm.
A second study looked at whether people would actually be more likely to tell white lies to under-performing women than under-performing men. First, 66 participants read and rated two mediocre essays they were told had just been written by a pair of students participating remotely (in actual fact, there were no real writers taking part). Initially, participants evaluated these essays from 0 to 100% on dimensions like “focus” and “logic”, providing feedback only to the researchers.
At this point, the first names of each writer were revealed: Sarah and Andrew. Participants were then asked to provide ratings directly to each writer, and give some feedback, which independent coders rated on positivity and constructiveness. Participants also rated the writers on warmth, competence and future ability, and indicated what percentage of the truth they believed they had told Sarah or Andrew.
Mirroring results from the first study, participants were more likely to tell white lies to the writer they believed was a woman, with participants giving Sarah more favourable evaluations during the second phase of the experiment than during the first. Participants rating Andrew showed no difference in evaluation. Feedback for Sarah was also more positive than feedback for Andrew. Interestingly, the majority of participants (65%) were aware of having told white lies, but also reported that they gave equally truthful feedback to Sarah and Andrew, suggesting a lack of awareness of the gendered dimension.
Given the biases many women still face in the workplace, the results seem counterintuitive – surely women are rated less kindly than male colleagues? The team argues that gender stereotypes are at play here. Women are often perceived as less confident than their male counterparts, as this study showed. A manager may therefore decide to lie because they believe they will be boosting a female employee’s low confidence. Another suggestion is that women are still seen as a low-powered group: criticism, therefore, may be perceived as needless denigration.
Either way, such “benevolent sexism” is not helpful. Though on the surface a kinder performance evaluation may seem positive, it may be holding women back, failing to explain how they could improve at work. It can also feed into ideas that women are inferior or subordinate to men and therefore need protecting.
Whereas other parts of HR or management processes have used techniques such as blind hiring to remove bias, it’s harder to see what kinds of adaptations could be made to tackle these tendencies – you can’t give blind performance evaluations, after all. Understanding more about how women experience benevolent and non-benevolent sexism is a start, but there’s much more work to be done to eradicate many obstacles in their way.