Meritocracy is a Chimera

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The American Heritage Dictionary defines meritocracy as “A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” This term is often used by companies trying to defend their lack of diversity or their unwillingness to take steps to increase diversity. If not stated explicitly, the belief in meritocracy is implied in pronouncements such as “we only hire the best” or “we only care about performance.”

Out of respect to the editors and readers of Forbes, I resisted the temptation to title this piece “Meritocracy Is Bull***t,” but when I thought about it carefully, I realized that chimera is actually a more fitting term than my original, more vulgar choice. Turning again to dictionary definitions, we see that chimera as a proper noun includes the definitions “An imaginary monster made up of grotesquely disparate parts” and “Any horrible or grotesque imaginary creature.” As a common noun, chimera includes the definitions “A fanciful mental illusion or fabrication” and “A wild and unrealistic dream or notion.”

In the context of workplace careers and diversity, I would argue that both the proper- and common-noun definitions are quite apropos. Let’s begin with the proper-noun definitions of meritocracy as a monster composed of disparate parts. Arguing that a company is run as a meritocracy, typically involves one or more characteristics: laziness, naïveté and dishonesty.

Laziness, because those who invoke meritocracy as a justification for hiring employees who match the existing majority, are often unwilling to make the effort to look for talent from less common sources. Whether you are doing your own recruiting or using an external company, your candidate pool should, at a minimum, reflect the make-up of skilled professionals in the field. The so-called Rooney Rule that so many companies are adopting, is a palliative that may assuage guilt, but does little to level the playing field.

Naïveté, because believing that individual talent is the only thing that leads to a white man being promoted, reveals a lack of understanding of the many ways in which privilege confers benefits every single day, and the myriad challenges faced by women and underrepresented minorities — from daily microaggressions to egregious acts of sexual harassment.

Dishonesty, because the vast majority of assessment methods used for hiring, compensating or promoting employees are based on qualitative methods rife with subjectivity. Whether your metrics consist of hiring only from top schools, or whether you justify your hiring practices by stating that you don’t want to “lower the bar,” unless you have a quantitative assessment technique that tracks performance for the entire lifespan of your employees, coupled with a methodology that removes all biases from hiring and promotion processes, your claims of objectivity are insincere.

Turning to the common-noun definitions of chimera, the notion that companies are run as true meritocracies is indeed a “fanciful mental illusion.”

In a recent post, I proposed a simple thought experiment in which two “work twins” are identical in every way — including both professional and personal traits — except that one is male and the other is female. I point out that if these work twins are both hired to fill two identical positions in a fictitious company, and the company’s current employees are mostly men, then the female twin is likely to have a more negative experience than the male twin. The divergence of experiences (and thus the resulting divergence of achievements and perceived ability) does not require outright bigotry or hostility toward the female twin: even a small unconscious bias in hiring or promotion can yield dramatically different experiences that will give the male twin an unfair advantage. While the leaders of this fictitious company pat themselves on the back for upholding a meritocracy, they will, albeit unwittingly, continue to perpetuate systemic biases that favor those already in the majority. This, incidentally, is one of several reasons why Affirmative Action is so important.

There is another reason why meritocracy is nothing but an illusion: many studies, including a recent report by Pluchino, Biondo and Rapisarda, have shown quantitatively that while talent can certainly improve one’s chances of success, luck can actually play a more significant role. In their work, the authors used a computer model to simulate individuals who randomly experience positive or negative events during their lifetime, and whose ability to take advantage of the positive events is proportional to their talent. The authors were able to show that, under fairly general assumptions, while talent is necessary to be successful in life, the highest peaks of success are almost always reached by “mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.”

Among other enlightening but troubling conclusions, the authors point out that because employee performance is carried out a posteriori, rewarding employees based on the notion of meritocracy, “ends up switching cause and effect, rating as the most talented people those who are, simply, the luckiest ones.”

What makes these findings even more troubling in the context of the workplace, is that rather than being the result of blind luck, the positive and negative events are distributed unevenly as a result of personal traits, such as gender and race, which should have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s ability to perform her job. In other words, absent a completely inclusive culture in a company that is highly diverse, meritocracy — whether intentionally or unintentionally — is simply a way of perpetuating systemic biases and sanctioning discrimination. Seen in this light, invoking meritocracy as a justification for eschewing efforts to increase diversity, is not simply an “unrealistic dream” but a rather grotesque, horrible fabrication.

This article was originally published on Forbes.

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