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The Trouble with Merit Is...

Okay, this gave me a Kelly Clarkson ear worm and I'm sitting here belting soulful lyrics. Today's topic, on this election day when our aspirations for a meritocracy are greatest, can elicit the same soulful angst...

The idea of merit is built in to the US "bootstrap" culture (this is the belief system which, despite evidence, hangs our motivations on the idea that those who work hard get ahead). We've culturally bought into the idea that merit - the quality of being worthy - is a great equalizer and can help us transcend discrimination in the workplace. As employers increasingly see the need to increase fairness, many are working hard to make sure their systems are fair - based on "merit." Unfortunately, discrimination is built right into what merit is all about.

A merit-based system says that merit is the basis for making decisions - discriminating among choices. This system assumes everyone has had the same opportunity to acquire this merit, so those with more merit are those who are more worthy. Some of the common factors that go into the concept of merit are educational attainment especially from prestigious schools, good performance, especially in roles with great responsibility, and the most loosy-goosy: "capability."

And here we can immediately see the breakdown of the meritocracy: school attainment, especially Ivy League school attainment, has a long history of disparity for identities that face the most discrimination; women and people of color continue to be underrepresented in leadership in spite of all other factors being equal; and "capability" is ill-defined and hard to measure, and fraught with bias in favor of a light-skinned, masculine profile.

All of this translates to meritocracy paradox: we think merit will overcome bias when our most entrenched biases are baked right in, and there are three studies to prove it. Pair this with the evidence from over 30 years of diversity program data that shows how performance review systems actually worsen the level of diversity in management, we may be back to the drawing board about how to instill equity into the way we assess workers.

Do you have experience with an employee review system that achieves some level of equity? I'm looking for examples! Please share in the comments or contact me directly at abcontractor@workplaceequitypartners.com.

©2018 by Workplace Equity Partners