As a society, America tends to support the concept of a meritocracy, at least as it relates to the business world. The basic idea behind a meritocracy is that those with the greatest intelligence, resourcefulness, experience, education, etc.—the greatest merit—are the ones who are most highly rewarded, through increases in compensation, career advancement, prestige, etc.
Meritocracy is often held up as a contrast to industries or companies dominated by nepotism or “good old boy” networks, in which friends and family members of those in power tend to receive the greatest perks, regardless of who has the greatest merit.
Meritocracy May Be the Goal, But What’s the Reality?
But even when companies believe they embody the ideals of a meritocracy, they may be doing so only within a very narrow subset of the available workforce.
For example, imagine a law firm in which promotions and compensation are rigidly based on a performance appraisal system the firm has spent tremendous time, effort and money crafting with the aim of developing a truly objective analysis of an employee’s performance.
Similarly, the firm’s hiring process is dedicated to finding the best talent, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social economic background, etc.
Despite these efforts, the firm still finds that its attorneys and management team are overwhelmingly white men with very little diversity.
Are You Rewarding Those Who Look Like You
This situation is often referred to as a mirror-tocracy meaning that, rather than being based solely on merit, hiring and other personnel decisions often favor groups that resemble the individuals making the hiring and personnel decisions.
Many companies would be shocked to hear themselves labeled a mirror-tocracy and, like our hypothetical law firm, may be able to point to genuine and robust efforts at objectivity and merit-based decision making. However, mirror-tocracies are a product of unconscious bias. Those creating and perpetuating them are often completely unaware that they may be favoring candidates or employees that look like them, or that have similar backgrounds to theirs, over others.
However, when we take a step back and look at data in the aggregate, evidence of in-group-based selection bias, or mirror-tocracy – can become strikingly apparent.
Working to Remote Unconscious Bias
It’s hard to imagine a company that would strive to become a mirror-tocracy. Companies have a strong self-interest in filling their ranks with the best and brightest. And yet, even these diligent efforts can create a disappointingly homogenous workforce, meaning that companies may be missing out on great talent from more diverse groups. Companies hoping to avoid the pitfalls of a mirror-tocracy should think first and foremost about the unconscious bias among their personnel decision makers as well as the company itself and look for ways to address the impacts of that bias.
How are you doing with that? Be inclusive!