Biased merit and diversity

In two earlier posts I discussed the roles of skill and luck in being successful and getting rewarded. Recently I read a Harvard Business Review* (HBR) article on the topic and wanted to get briefly back to this important topic.

As the fashion goes today, diversity is the hot topic on improving performance in organizations and promoting equality.  At the same time organizations face the problem of increasing diversity in the correct and effective way. This starts with the definition of diversity. The HBR article mentions that Millennials see diversity as “valuing ope participation by employees with different perspectives and personalities”, while older generations see diversity as “equitable representation and assimilation of people from different demographic groups”.

Even if we manage to agree on whether to promote diversity of thought and personalities, different demographic groups or still something else, choosing the right people is still a challenge. An obvious answer is to use merit based assessments. Yet, even then we face problems, since, it turns out, the very definition of merit depends on the person being evaluated.

The HBR article cites a study, where a consulting firm’s recruiting process was observed to see how merit is defined. It became clear that merit is not a fixed personality attribute or a specific behavioral model for a specific situation. When the consulting firm had interviewed job candidates and the interviewers came together to discuss their observations, they ended up trying to reach consensus on the maybe-maybe not candidates; the clear no-gos and top performers were not discussed. When discussing the still open cases, a person’s evaluation was highly influenced by his racial background: “For example, black and Hispanic men were often seen as lacking polish [, meaning communication skills,] and moved to the reject pile, even when they were strong in other areas, whereas white men who lacked polish were deemed coachable and keep in the running.”

The italics in the above passage are mine, since the word coachable really caught my attention here. The passage says that black an Hispanic men lacking polish were perceived to have incomplete skill sets, maybe without improvement potential, while white men with similar skill sets were seen amenable to coaching, something that might be even desirable to educate a new employee into the company culture.

In another passage from the article the difference in social behavior were discussed: “Nonwhite were rejected for being unassertive, but in white, modesty was seen as a virtue.” Here, like with the lack of polish, we see how some candidates missing a character are taken to be incomplete and also lack the potential for further development, while other candidates with lacking skill sets are seen as fertile ground for education and personal development.

Quite obviously merit based evaluation and remuneration is not a panacea, all the more if we have no clear, for all equal definition of merit in a given situation. Thus, we should be aware and acknowledge that our very definition of merit can be biased. Acknowledging this fact is one step closer to doing fair, merit based evaluations and promoting diversity based on true, equally assessed merit.

*Harvard Business Review July-August 2016: We Just Can’t Handle Diversity

Edit: Corrected typos on 26.3.2017

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