Subjectivity’s Toxic Role In Diversity Issues

The inadequacy of the “whoever’s the best candidate” excuse.

Two days ago, Leslie Miley, Twitter’s Engineering Manager and the only black engineer in a leadership position at the company, made news when he publicly announced on Medium that he had left the company. Miley elaborated on Twitter’s lack of diversity and, you could say, the company’s seeming ignorance in knowing how to address the lack of diversity as reasons for his departure. I’m not going to rehash too much of what he wrote here because you should check out his post and read the whole thing.

One of the parts of his piece that struck me the most was when Miley asked about specific steps — I imagine rather than the company simply paying lip service about diversity — Twitter was going to take to increase diversity:

“Personally, a particularly low moment was having my question about what specific steps Twitter engineering was taking to increase diversity answered by the Sr. VP of Eng at the quarterly Engineering Leadership meeting. When he responded with “diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.” I then realized I was the only African-American in Eng leadership.”

I was surprised to read this wasn’t the breaking point for Miley (the breaking point would come some time later when, through a series of incidents, Miley realized that the company more or less “forgot he was black”).

While I have no real way of understanding the context of that conversation and what the rest of that conversation entailed, I will say that, alone, the we can’t lower the bar defense — and it is a defense —in addressing diversity in the workplace (or anywhere really) seems to indicate an attitude surreptitiously toxic to diversity progress. It’s pretty telling that, to the SVP of Engineering at Twitter, an increase in diversity seems synonymous or at least connected closely in his mind with a decrease in quality.

A close cousin to this attitude is the “whoever’s the best candidate” defense, a super prevalent attitude if the comments section on the TechCrunch article reporting on Miley’s departure is any evidence. The best candidate for a job should get the job. The idea sounds fine. Race, gender and religion shouldn’t matter. The only thing that should matter is the person’s qualifications. This all seems to check out with our shared meritocratic ideals.

The only problem is, well, what makes the best candidate? The college they attended? The speed in which they solve a test problem? Their previous work? Previous places of employment? Letters of recommendation? The substance of their interviews?

Not to mention, what is the best candidate? A specialist? A generalist? A collaborator? An individual genius? A genial person who’ll contribute to a happy company culture? A person not afraid to tell hard truths? A person who holds people to high standards? A person who is genuinely empathetic?

What I’m suggesting is that “the best candidate” is more mythical creature than actual reality. What the best candidate ends up being then is a cocktail of confirmation bias in addition to metrics of varying reliability devised by people who need to create metrics and qualifications in order to make it seem like they’re doing rigorous vetting of candidates, lest they seem unexacting. Measuring candidates’ performance and potential then seems a lot more like the NFL Combine than anything else: Something designed to ostensibly help NFL talent evaluators make informed draft decisions but really something more designed to help talent evaluators justify their draft decisions more than actually help them make more informed decisions.

If you think this all seems somewhat possible and somewhat reasonable then the idea of “the best candidate” ends up being, basically, spin and ultimately obfuscation of what is a very subjective process. Therefore, the notion that an increase in diversity conflicts with the search for the best candidate seems hollow. The notion that diversity is not something constructive and productive for the company in question seems hollow (and according to Miley, Twitter’s lack of diversity in leadership positions actually has had and continues to have a potentially adverse effect on how it’s able to build and craft a product that grows in a way that better engages its diverse pool of existing and potential users).

What “the best candidate” justification seems like then, in the context of this conversation, is a way to stay comfortable. It’s a way of hiding behind your own biases and calling it objective truth. This may work out perfectly fine for you. It’s not a 100% flawed endeavor. But it is a flawed endeavor. And using “the best candidate” justification as a rhetorical weapon to end a conversation makes it seem like you care more about seeming right rather than understanding what is right.

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