Misconceptions on Merit 

Merit implies a sense of deserving or worthiness. We often view merit as something earned or based on past behavior or achievement. But merit is shaped in large part by past opportunities or privileges. Imagine two students accepted into the same prestigious school, one could afford to attend and the other could not. What does this say about merit? Or take two candidates who applied for the same role. One fit the majority demographic and was very similar to the last person with this job title, and the other came from a different background or underrepresented group. Each of these scenarios tells us nothing about merit and everything about opportunities and systems that worked in favor or against each candidate. 

When we base qualification and fit on something as subjective as merit, we are bound to miss out on talented and diverse candidates. With this narrow view of excellence, diversity hiring is not possible. The fundamental belief that potential lies in a narrow group of people is harmful to our candidates, our cultures, and our organizations. It’s simply not true and has been proven time and time again that teams made up of diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences lead to greater innovation and creativity. 

The False Dichotomy 

Recently, Snowflake’s CEO revealed his misconceptions around merit, saying “We’re actually highly sympathetic to diversity but we just don’t want that to override merit. If I start doing that, I start compromising the company’s mission literally.” His statement offended many and he has since apologized, but it reflects important internal assumptions. Why does diversity threaten merit? What does this say about our assumptions of underrepresented groups of people? 

Clearly, the imperative need for diversity, equity, and inclusion is not understood by all. Saying “we’re actually highly sympathetic to diversity” is nothing more than talk if it is not intrinsically believed. A recent study showed that “51% of people associate the term ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ with ‘political correctness.’” This helps to explain the lack of urgency we’ve seen. Until DE&I is believed to be important, beyond political correctness, true strides toward inclusion are not possible. 

Raising the Bar 

When we hear the idea of hiring diverse talent described as a “lowering of the bar”, this should raise a red flag. Just because something has historically been a certain way does not mean that it is the most efficient, productive, or warranted. This view prevents us from hiring new, different, capable, and qualified candidates.

Stop and consider your assumptions about merit. Most of what comes to mind is likely circumstances or opportunities that are outside of our control, such as gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, or socioeconomic status. Sifting through our assumptions is important to help us figure out which of the factors we call merit are out of an individual’s control and which are a result of hard work and achievement. 

Isn’t it possible that some of our hiring decisions are based on nothing more than a perception of merit, or unconscious bias? These unconscious biases have perpetuated themselves as the status quo and have long hindered those from underrepresented groups. 

Changing the way we think about merit and checking our assumptions will allow us to engage diverse and even unconventional talent. If homogeneous talent has been the standard and has influenced the way we view merit and the way we recruit, the bar was low to begin with. Following the status quo is easy. Hiring with diversity and equity raises the bar.