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Meritocracy vs Diversity

“We hire and promote based on merit.”

What a great statement.  It embodies living in America where people from meager means can rise to riches.  Look at Oprah and Bill Gates as examples.

Wouldn’t be great to work for a company whose reward structure is such that the most talented and determined individuals receive the most?  It is fair, after all, that everyone has a chance to succeed if they work hard, are smart, and persevere.

I used to believe all that. . . until I started thinking about the wealthy families who were caught trying to buy their way into the elite colleges.

What bothered me was if you have a bank full of money, why would you need to cheat?


Ironically, the easy answer on why to buy your way into college is a belief in a meritocracy system in America.  Education is supposed to be the great equalizer that gives everyone a chance to grow beyond their family’s status in life.  I have several friends who are the first in their families to go to college, and the system works—until it doesn’t.

Take Mark Zuckerberg for example.  He was able to grow beyond his family’s status (and nearly everyone else’s) when he launched Facebook from his dorm room while at Harvard.

Wait a minute—Harvard?  That’s not a fair start, Zuckerberg got into one of the elitists of elite schools.  This is no disrespect to him, but if he could get into Harvard, he better succeed.  Yes, he had the smarts to get in, but he was also around a lot of other extremely smart and influential people as well as the culture that Harvard invokes.

The wealthy want their children, whether they deserve it or not, to get into elite schools because they want their kids to have a running start at success.

Meritocracy at Work

This is the same attitude that exists when we try to apply the concept where everyone is rewarded based on their own merits— a meritocracy-based system.  Try as hard as we might, not everyone in your business will be able to perform the same because they all show up with differing backgrounds, non-work-related skill sets, and life experiences.

Meritocracy in the workplace is not possible because individual accomplishments aren’t always the results of their own efforts.  Due to differing resources and other life circumstances, people are often on unequal playing fields.  Fate isn’t always in their hands.

Bias at Work

Work-related meritocracy-based systems don’t work because of our human interactions and inherent biases.  Company leadership needs to be completely honest about their ability to evaluate people.  And, as studies show, this practically never happens.

How many articles have been published over the past several decades pointing out the disparity of men’s salaries to that of women’s?  And of the disparity of white’s pay to that of blacks and Hispanic’s?

These biases are not new, and yet we are still discussing how to resolve them.

            My point for managers and entrepreneurs is that we need to know we are biased, and because of that, meritocratic systems will not work.

Two of the top researchers in this field, Castilla and Benard, write.

An organizational culture that prides itself on meritocracy may encourage bias by convincing managers that they themselves are unbiased, which in turn may discourage them from closely examining their own behaviors for signs of prejudice.

            What to Do

Sadly, the more you are sure you are unbiased, probably the more biased you are.  And it is these biases that are keeping us from having a well-rounded, diverse, inclusive workforce.

Recognizing our biases is the first step in creating a more fair, equitable work environment.  In reality, we need to do more.

As Nigel Nicholson, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School and author of The I of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being, and Doing says.

I would like to see organizations become more ethical, to be more kindly, to be more flexible and have more belief in human adaptability and helping people learn and develop and to move along paths that open their eyes.

The Bible

Isn’t that what the Bible says.

Luke 6:35-36 says.

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Our employees need to be rewarded based on an unbiased metric that takes into account many factors, not the traditional meritocracy system of today. That ultimately is the pathway to a more diverse workforce.

We don’t need a system based on meritocracy.  We need to follow the commands of God and treat each other with respect, love, and concern.  And through that system will we ultimately find a way to reward our employees appropriately.