Merit is about sameness, not diversity

Many organisations proudly say that they use merit to select and promote employees as if it solves the issue of diversity. Merit assumes that there has been no bias – the best person wins. But if an organisation is operating within the same construct and environment that has allowed bias or discrimination to evolve and even prosper, then how can merit overcome diversity? In fact, merit just encourages more of the same.

Like hires like

For merit to work effectively the pool of candidates needs to be diverse at the outset. This is fraught with problems, research tells us that like hires like. As the UN Women National Committee Australia says in its research on meritocracy, “there is a general agreement that humans have strong in-group bias, and this bias plays out in a number of ways across social, racial, gendered and other groups.”

People who don’t fit the mould rarely make it into the consideration pool, which means merit cannot play a role in improving the diversity of a workplace.

In many organisations, merit is a process. People pat themselves on the back because they’ve ticked all the boxes, but that doesn’t make the outcomes diverse or even ensure that the process was fair. It assumes that everyone started from an even playing field. But if the playing field has been built and designed by one group to suit their needs, it’s impossible for it to be anything but biased.

Take the issue of female partnerships in law firms. A study by the University of Wollongong found that out of 40 firms, the highest representation of women as equity partners was 32.8%. Yet in 90% of these firms, over 50% of their Senior Associates were women. Clearly, merit is not playing a role when promoting women into profit-sharing roles, otherwise you could reasonably expect the proportions to remain the same. In fact, research in both the UK and the US has found that diversity programs founded on “meritocracies” actually breed a “hypermasculine work culture” because the structure of work and hiring processes perpetuate the status quo.

While there isn’t as much research to show whether meritocracies have had the same nil impact on encouraging diversity in other areas – like racial, cultural or generational diversity – it’s safe to assume that it hasn’t.

Merit is subjective

Unconscious or even conscious bias plays a significant role in merit-based programs. People promote those who are like them rather than based on competence or capability. It’s virtually impossible to be subjective when deciding who to promote or hire.

Take the Heidi vs Howard study by Columbia Business School. The CV of a woman (the real candidate) was viewed less favourably than a male applicant (a non-existent candidate) with the same history. The more assertive and powerful the woman was perceived to be, the more unfavourably she was viewed. Based on this study, it could be inferred that a successful and competent woman is less likely to benefit from “merit” because of unconscious bias that will view her negatively.

Merit also tends to look at a person’s potential, which raises a vast range of subjective measures. For example, if someone is considered to have potential because they’re available whenever the phone rings, then any person working part-time will automatically be excluded.

This kind of bias can be very difficult to identify unless the process is completely blind – when recruiting or promoting individuals that’s virtually impossible to achieve. The only way to achieve true diversity is to remove merit altogether in favour of other methods of hiring and promoting that encourage diversity and truly reward people based on their level of competency and the skills that they bring to the table.

One way is to ensure that management is held accountable for their decisions in an objective way. They shouldn’t be allowed to rely on “merit” as a reason, but instead should show what that means when it comes to hiring and promoting. Diversity targets should be reported and affirmative action encouraged across a range of diversity measures. These could be broadened to focus on bringing a wider range of people into the talent pool.

Further up the ladder, it may then be necessary to look at more creative methods that encourage a broader panel of people to be involved in promotions overseeing a wider selection of criteria. KPIs and even strict proportions can all be considered when looking at who is being promoted and, more importantly, who isn’t.

While many organisations have relied on training as a way to change behaviour and encourage diversity, research has shown this to have little impact. That’s because a fundamental change in the structure and culture of the workplace needs to occur. For example, organisations need to look at the language that is used in role descriptions and interviews to ensure it is inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds. This doesn’t just mean avoiding harassing or discriminatory commentary, all sorts of seemingly innocuous language, artefacts, symbols and behaviours can actually encourage or discourage people from working for an organisation. Organisations need to critically look at how their leaders behave and operate and determine if it sends the right message. For example, are some people invited to play golf or regularly collaborate with one leader? Are there informal rewards or discipline mechanisms in place that are implemented in favour or against specific groups?

Achieving true diversity is not easy and for too long merit has given organisations a reason to stop trying. The biggest losers when it comes to lack of diversity are clients and employees. They don’t benefit from the richness, difference and talent that exists amongst diverse groups of people. Instead, organisations have kept serving them up more of the same. It’s time for this to change and for organisations to take a look at how they operate and what they can do to deliver on what they have promised.


Moulis Legal is proud to sponsor the Property Council of Australia’s Award for Diversity > 250 Employees, recognising the positive contribution made by organisations that demonstrate a holistic and long-term commitment to diversity within the property industry |

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Suzanne Moulis