Do we live in a meritocracy? It’s an urgent question for millions of people trying to succeed in their careers. While the tech sector has been challenged specifically on that question, it remains relevant across the economy. With inequality rising and discontent growing for millennials who feel held back, we must know whether the rules of the game are fair.
The reality of privilege and meritocracy in the job market today is both slightly more encouraging and far more complex than he suggests.
Joe Nocera of the New York Times recently responded to Fast Company coverage of the role of meritocracy in Silicon Valley by saying that those who claim a vibrant meritocracy should better claim hypocrisy. He cites tech companies’ preference for recruiting from certain schools and their recently revealed diversity statistics. But Nocera’s complaints fail to explain why those things are true and I’d like to provide a more useful assessment. The reality of privilege and meritocracy in the job market today is both slightly more encouraging and far more complex than he suggests.
I’ve spent the past four years studying success in the job market in my role as a Director of Career Services at the University of Chicago [Disclosure: I’ve also cofounded startups]. But unlike most pundits who focus only on people who’ve succeed easily, I’ve also studied and coached those who’ve struggled mightily. By collecting data from across the distribution, I’ve been able to identify the underlying influences that drive career success.
After studying both groups, I discovered that privilege today is no longer as simple as: Do this, Get that. I’ve worked with over 800 graduate students who are on the whole smart, interesting, and eager to do great work. You might believe that such students would coast on their apparent privilege from a top university and have a stress-free path to career success compared to say, the African American computer science students from Clemson that Nocera mentioned. But you’d be wrong.
Race isn’t the only barrier to career success and is only part of the story. While race still influences hiring in subtle and virulent ways—which the economist Sendhil Mullainathan summarized effectively in another recent NYTimes article—race alone cannot fully explain our lack of meritocracy. As I’ll show, the barrier that I’ve discovered isn’t as easily identified as race or gender. This one influences everyone’s career success equally.
ALUMINUM PLATES PER HOUR
Without objective performance data organizations cannot make the assessments and comparisons necessary to identify the absolute “best” candidate. Eighty years ago, objective evaluations were possible. Work responsibilities were easily captured in simple performance metrics (i.e. “stamp X aluminum plates per hour”), which allowed for performance-based comparisons. But we lost this kind of simplicity when we transitioned from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.
Imagine the kind of data we would need to claim that. Right now, it’s impossible.
In the knowledge-economy, reliable performance evaluations became insanely difficult. Among tech companies, Google’s People Ops team has been working very hard on this. And I know there will be HR consultants who say they can do it. But I challenge them to show how much variance in performance they can explain. More specifically: How certain are they that any of the hundreds of candidates who were passed over could not have outperformed the candidate they did hire? Imagine the kind of data we would need to claim that. Right now, it’s impossible. And without it, a true meritocracy will elude us.
So if organizations can’t use objective evaluation, how do they make hiring decisions? I believe that all job applications and interviews can best be described as an act of storytelling.
THE POWER OF PREFERRED STORIES
The people hired for knowledge jobs are never those who are objectively “better.” Instead, they are always those who tell the best story. The dominant role of storytelling in hiring is the meritocratic barrier hidden in plain sight.
For evidence, consider behavioral interviewing—the enduring standard for most organization’s hiring practices. The key assumption of behavioral interviewing is: “if you can tell me about a time in the past when you’ve done something well, that means you can do it well in the future.” But there’s a hidden variable. The real assumption is: “If you can tell me a compelling story about a time in the past when you’ve done something well, that means you can do it well in the future.” It’s a subtle, but powerful difference.
The central role of storytelling likely explains why many of us haven’t gotten jobs we thought we were perfect for. And if you’re like most of my students, you’ll be initially angry and then gradually empowered by this reality.
Hiring is always very personal. All hiring managers have preferred stories that deeply shape their evaluations of job candidates. Before candidates answer their first question, hiring managers bring with them expectations about what kinds of stories will be persuasive. Further complicating the dynamic, few hiring managers are conscious of how influential their expectations are — if you’re skeptical, skim back through Mullainathan’s research summary. The reality is that arbitrariness, in the form of preferred stories, is everywhere in hiring—from the job description to the interview.
THE UNCANNY VALLEY?
The importance of preferred stories in hiring is the alternative lens with which to reinterpret Nocera’s facts. Silicon Valley does in fact have preferred stories that they use as proxies for selecting quality applicants. They are often attracted to candidates whose stories include schools like Harvard and Stanford. They are also attracted to stories that include past experience developing and selling new products, using certain software platforms, contributing to open-source projects, and working for VC-funded organizations. But the use of preferred stories isn’t limited to Silicon Valley.
All organizations deploy preferred stories. University departments do, partisan think-tanks do, and environmental nonprofits do. Newspapers must as well, since The Time’s Opinion Pages has a lower percentage of female contributors (18%) than Google has female employees (30%) — the latter figure Nocera described as appalling. Does that small percentage of women at the Times indicate an absence of meritocracy? It’s impossible to say. But it does represent a lack of diversity. We must begin to understand that these are different things.
But that bargain may not be as rich as it once was.
All organizations use preferred stories to select types of people who they believe can contribute effectively. Are they often wrong? Yes. Do they miss many people who, with a little bit of enculturation could be extraordinary? Absolutely. Through our reliance on preferred stories, we prove that we’re still better at selecting similarity over diversity. Why? Because for the most part, as with all heuristics, the use of preferred stories enables a kind of efficiency. And with so much actual work to be done, most organizations believe they’re getting a good bargain. But that bargain may not be as rich as it once was.
AN ASTOUNDING MOMENT IN HUMAN HISTORY
At the same moment in human history when organizations possess the tools to be their most creative, human diversity—in all its forms—is more discoverable and accessible than ever. That’s astounding. It’s a recipe for more meaningful connections with our work as well as greater innovation and organizational performance. But so far, we’re missing our opportunity.
Fortunately, individual candidates and managers can help reshape the hiring process from both sides. With storytelling as the primary medium, candidates must become more audience-driven and creative. They must realize that they’re making an argument when they interview. Meanwhile, managers must open themselves to the unexpected and experiment with new ways to interpret potential. They must expand their set of acceptable (i.e. qualifying) stories so they don’t miss out on breakthrough candidates. They must even help those with nontraditional stories find ways to share them. By putting these new habits into practice, we may nudge our system to finally prefer diversity and meritocracy, over redundancy.
Will Gossin is a Director of Career Services at the University of Chicago. He also runs workshops and blogs on how people and organizations connect at TheLeanCareer.com.
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