*Research like this is valuable (and more than a little depressing**) for reminding us that, no matter how enlightened we consider ourselves, certain subconscious prejudices persist.

Of course, the billion-dollar question is how to combat these perceptions--perceptions most people would vehemently deny harboring much less be honest about analyzing.

In the meantime, we just have to hope that business owners don't respond to such studies by rushing to homogenize their workforces.

 --Michelle Cottle


* Heavy sigh. For whatever reason, the link will not work. Please excuse while I cut and paste all but a couple of grafs from the lead section of today's WaPo "Science Roundup":

Although many businesses think they are rewarding the best employees by relying on what customers say, that system effectively discriminates against women and minorities and can undermine business performance, according to a study to be published in the Academy of Management Journal.

"Right now, businesses think customer satisfaction surveys are highly reliable," said lead author David R. Hekman, assistant professor of management at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "They are highly reliable -- but they are reliably wrong."

Hekman and his colleagues evaluated 12,091 patient reports about 113 doctors working at a large HMO in the Pacific Northwest. They also studied objective data about the doctors. The regularity with which doctors place heart patients on certain drugs, for example, is a good measure of the quality of their care. The number of e-mails doctors send patients is a measure of their accessibility. And the number of questions doctors ask patients during checkups is a measure of their diligence.

In all these domains, however, Hekman found that these objective measures of performance correlated with patient satisfaction reports only when the doctors were white men. For women and minorities, extra quality, accessibility and diligence not only did not result in better evaluations by patients -- they produced worse evaluations.

"E-mails make patients happier only if you are a white male doctor," Hekman said, noting that 6 percent of the doctors' income was based on the patient ratings. "It does not make sense -- working harder seems to be counterproductive for women and minorities."

In a related experiment involving bookshop employees, volunteers were shown two videotaped interactions between a customer and a sales clerk and were told to imagine they were customers and rate the shop's service. Some were shown a white male sales clerk, while others were shown a black male clerk or a white female clerk. All the clerks were actors -- and everything else in the videos was identical, down to the script.

Those shown the white male clerk rated the service provided 19 percent higher than volunteers shown the woman or the black man. They also rated stores with white male clerks as being cleaner.

Hekman also studied the satisfaction levels of 3,600 golfers at 66 clubs nationwide. Clubs that employed higher numbers of Latinos were rated more poorly than clubs employing fewer minorities -- even when they performed identically on objective measures.

** Then again, the potential silver lining for all the non-white men out here is that the study suggests we probably shouldn't bother working that hard to impress customers, since no one is going to appreciate the extra effort anyway. Whoo hoo! I'll be at the beach for the rest of the summer.