DiversityWhy Your Company’s Meritocracy Narrative is Hurting Your Diversity Efforts Rose Walsh 

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").

All of this illuminates what many know to be true, our understanding of “merit” is deeply tied to our assumptions and biases of race, gender, age, ethnicity, and other markers of diversity. Interviewers inherently judge candidates differently on the same attributes and skills. In the above mentioned interview room, as in many (likely, most) others, the candidate viewed as “most qualified” is likely to be reflective of the company’s existing employees, leadership teams, and interview panels.

Ensuring diverse interview panels is one step to evaluating diverse candidates more fairly. In 2014, Intel required that all interview panels must include at least two women and/or people of color, and have seen a nearly 15% increase in diversity hires. Ensuring that the candidate is reflected on the team evaluating them will be beneficial for all involved, and potentially make it less likely that a shared bias blocks a hiring decision. However, diverse interviewers are not bias-free and it cannot fall exclusively on the shoulders of minorities to ensure fair hiring practices.

Additionally, we believe that it is time for companies to reevaluate how they assess candidates. “Merit” is far too subjective and simple of a tool to really evaluate someone. These days, job descriptions often get passed between hiring managers, leadership, and peers, all of whom add something to the wish list of skills and requirements until the ideal candidate doesn’t exist. Our research and others’ has shown that many diverse candidates are less likely to apply to jobs unless they meet every single requirement, illustrated in the oft cited statistic that men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the requirements but women will only apply if they meet 100% of the listed requirements.

Overstuffing job descriptions and disqualifying candidates because they don’t check every single box is not serving you. Consider what is actually important to do the job well, and what skills candidates could acquire while they’re on the job. We aren’t telling you to compromise on important skills simply to hire a diverse candidate, but consider broadening your vision of what “qualified” means for the role you’re hiring for. Meytier asks our partners to pick five to ten skills to qualify as “must have'' and to list the others as “nice to have''. Remember, skills are attainable.

Lastly, candidates don’t just bring hard skills to the table. Look for skills you can’t teach, like communication, learnability, leadership, and empathy. These “softer” skills are often the differentiators between good employees and great ones. Sometimes, hiring managers get so caught up looking for candidates who will “fit” into their organization that they miss candidates who can add to their organization, who can help grow their organization. “Merit” can mean a lot of things. Diversifying your candidate slate doesn’t mean compromising for a less qualified candidate, but it could mean expanding your understanding of “qualified.”

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