“We believe people should be hired on their merits.”

5 minutes, 8 links

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a book by Osman (Ozzie) Osman and over 45 other contributors. It is the most authoritative resource on growing software engineering teams effectively, written by and for hiring managers, recruiters, interviewers, and candidates. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, over 800 links and references, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

“We believe people should be hired on their merits.”

Similar phrases include, “Our hiring process is fair” and “We’re a meritocracy.”

The Basics

While talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. Many URGs face barriers that people from majority groups do not. They don’t receive as many referrals, they get passed over for promotions, and they get paid less, to name just a few. They often have to work twice as hard or more to get the same level of recognition, while facing continued barriers like harassment and discrimination. The merit myth is a particularly difficult one to address, because you don’t want to make anyone feel that they don’t deserve what they’ve worked for, as you work to help more privileged people recognize the barriers URGs face. But this myth can be so harmful to individuals and teams that it’s critical to take steps to address it.

The belief that people get where they are based on individual effort alone —hard work—rather than by a combination of hard work, talent, circumstance, support, and luck, is particularly pervasive in the U.S. Faced with the kind of pressure and uncertainty that hiring presents, the idea of meritocracy has become a common mindset in tech. Believing (and being told) that those who work hard can get ahead gives us some temporary comfort that there’s a sense of fairness built into the system that we all “get what we deserve.”

But it isn’t a benign belief. Companies that believe in the myth of meritocracy—that people who try hard and are qualified are the ones who get the job offers, the corner offices, and the big paychecks—are more likely to find themselves in trouble, as they won’t be as vigilant about looking out for biases and making constant process improvements as the organization grows. Studies have shown that even believing in the idea of meritocracy increases discriminatory behaviors and biased beliefs.*

Going Deeper

important The term meritocracy was coined by sociologist Michael Dunlop Young to warn against the privileged class justifying their success and disenfranchising others. It is satire.

The tech industry tends to value metrics and being ‘rational’ above all else, but it would also serve us well to remember that hiring is an inherently human activity. That’s why it’s so hard and will never be completely solved. Every individual is a rich combination of their skills, values, life experiences, and background. There is no way we can make truly objective, rational decisions without our own biases coming into play. One of the most important things you can do is to acknowledge those biases, because then (and only then) can you make meaningful, ongoing improvements to your hiring process that result in a stellar team.Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate*

You might notice that people saying things like “our hiring process is fair” are usually—though not always—from the majority group. People from the majority groups often benefit from biased systems, which makes them less likely to examine their own privilege and more likely to assume that the system is fair. However, people from majority groups are not the ones who can properly determine whether a system is fair or not.

Some people who hold these beliefs might say things like, “There are laws that protect people from discrimination, so it doesn’t happen anymore,” or “This is a legal thing, legal people will sort it out.” Laws are often more punitive than preventative, and by the time a company or manager is held accountable for discrimination (if at all), the damage has been done. And it’s important to note that the law does not protect against all kinds of discrimination; businesses today can still legally discriminate against transgender employees without loginviolating federal law.

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Further Reading on the Meritocracy Myth

“What about ideological diversity?”

You might also hear someone say, “What about diversity of thought, isn’t that more important than what people look like?” or “Doesn’t my opinion matter anymore?”

The Basics

Ideological diversity (or diversity of thought) is the presence of diverging viewpoints, especially political viewpoints, in a group of people. Measuring ideological diversity can be useful in circumstances where this heterogeneity affects behavior or outcomes.*

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