Have you ever been in a meeting where someone suggests finding diverse candidates for a particular role and is met with the all too familiar “well, the most qualified person should get the job”? It’s not an uncommon attitude, but it's detrimental to your diversity efforts. When somebody suggests finding a more diverse candidate slate, they aren’t suggesting that the most qualified candidate should not receive the job. They’re suggesting that there may be other qualified candidates that aren’t being represented. Bringing up merit in response to diversity is only implying that you and your team don’t believe that diverse candidates are qualified. At Meytier, we try to live by the saying that diversity hiring isn’t about lowering the bar, it’s about widening the gate.
In reality, this meritocracy narrative is just another form of unconscious bias and so often, we feed into our bias about what a qualified employee looks like. Research has consistently shown that recruiters’ and interviewers’ decisions are deeply influenced by personal bias. Women who list PTA involvement on their resumes are seen as distracted, or uncommitted to their jobs whereas men who list PTA on their resumes are seen as involved and committed. Candidates with ethnic names will receive less responses than candidates with traditionally "white" names, even if they have similar or even identical qualifications. The reality is, we are not objective creatures and “merit” is not black and white, nor are our assessments of it.
In researching for her book Pedigree, Lauren Rivera, a Northwestern professor, sat in on one firm’s interview panel round table discussions to evaluate candidates and found that merit was hardly the differentiating factor between candidates who moved forward, and those who did not. In their discussions, interviewers were judging a candidates’ communication skills and “polish”. Black and Hispanic men were far more likely to be considered lacking in “polish”, and thus taken out of the running. However, white men who performed similarly were considered “coachable”. Women candidates who made minor math mistakes were rejected for not having the proper skills, but interviewers were much more forgiving for men who made the same mistakes, understanding that the interview was a stressful situation or the candidate was simply having an “off” day (Lisa Burrell- HBR, "We Just Can't Handle Diversity").