Diversity & Inclusion

How to Make Sure Your Company’s Meritocracy Narrative Isn’t Hurting Your Diversity Efforts

Have you sat in a hiring discussion during which someone suggests making an effort to find more diverse candidates and is met with “the most qualified person should get the job”? While it’s not an uncommon attitude, it’s detrimental to your diversity efforts. As HR practitioners, we must remember that diversity hiring isn’t about lowering the bar; it’s about widening the gate.


When somebody suggests creating a more diverse candidate slate, he or she isn’t suggesting that the most qualified candidate should not receive the job. The person is just suggesting that there may be other qualified candidates who aren’t being represented in your candidate slate.

Discussing merit in response to diversity is only implying that your company doesn’t believe diverse candidates are qualified.

Unconscious Bias

This meritocracy narrative is a form of unconscious bias. Research has consistently shown that recruiters’ and interview panels’ decisions are deeply influenced by their own personal biases. When women list PTA involvement on their résumés, they’re perceived as distracted and uncommitted to their jobs.

When men list PTA on their résumés, they’re seen as involved and committed. Candidates with ethnic names receive fewer responses than candidates with traditionally “white” names, even if they have similar or even identical qualifications. In truth, humans are not objective creatures, and “merit” is not black and white.

In doing research for her book Pedigree, Lauren Rivera, a Northwestern professor, sat in on one firm’s interview panel discussions to evaluate candidates. She found that merit was hardly the differentiating factor between candidates who moved forward and those who did not.

As interviewers judged candidates’ communication skills and “polish,” black and Hispanic men were far more likely to be taken out of the running for lacking “polish.” White men who performed similarly were considered “coachable.” Women candidates who made minor math mistakes were rejected, but interviewers were much more forgiving of men who made the same mistakes.

All of this just shows that our understanding of “merit” is inextricably tied to our assumptions and biases of race, gender, age, ethnicity, and other markers of diversity. Companies judge candidates differently on the same attributes and skills.

Truly Seeing the Most Qualified Candidate on Even Ground

Here are a few suggestions to ensure the candidate viewed as “most qualified” isn’t just the one who is most reflective of the company’s existing employees, leadership teams, and interview panels.

  • First, change the makeup of your interview panels. Mandating diverse interview panels is a great way to ensure diverse candidates aren’t being rejected due to personal bias. In 2014, Intel required all interview panels to include at least two women and/or people of color, which resulted in a nearly 15% increase in diverse hires. Diverse interview panels make it less likely for shared biases to block hiring decisions. Ensuring the candidates are reflected on interview panels will also likely increase offer acceptance and send a message that your organization is one in which they can succeed. However, diverse interviewers are not bias-free, and it cannot fall exclusively on the shoulders of minorities to ensure fair hiring practices.
  • Next, consider what is actually important to do the job. Take a look at your job descriptions. Job descriptions often get passed between HR, leadership, interviewers, and more—all of whom add something to the list of skills and requirements until the “ideal” candidate doesn’t even exist. Research has shown that many diverse candidates are less likely to apply to jobs if they don’t meet every single requirement—illustrated in the often 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 your job descriptions with skills that aren’t really required to execute the job you’re interviewing for (or that could be learned on the job) is doing your organization a huge disservice.
  • Remember, skills are attainable. Don’t disqualify candidates simply because they don’t check every single box (or use a computer system that simply matches résumés to job descriptions). We aren’t suggesting that you compromise on important skills simply to hire a diverse candidate; it may just be time to broaden your vision of what “qualified” looks like for the role you’re hiring for.
  • If you’re having a difficult time retaining or attracting diverse candidates, it may be due to your current lack of diversity. For hiring, a diverse interview panel or leadership team sends the message that your company is one at which candidates can thrive and grow. For retention, it’s difficult being the only person who looks like you on a team. In its “Women in the Workplace 2020” report, McKinsey calls these employees “onlys.” Women who are “onlys” are more likely to experience harassment and inappropriate remarks from colleagues, have their judgment questioned, and be mistaken for a more junior person; and, in 2020, women who were “onlys” were more likely to report they were considering downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Of these women, three out of four cited “burnout” as their main reason.
  • Lastly, look for skills you can’t teach, like communication, learnability, leadership, life experience, and empathy. Candidates don’t just bring hard skills to the table. 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 and who can help them grow and expand.

“Merit” is far too subjective of a tool to properly evaluate a candidate. When it comes down to it, “merit” doesn’t mean much at all. There are endless ways to quantify skills, experience, knowledge, expertise, etc. Diversifying your candidate slate doesn’t mean compromising for a less qualified candidate, but it could mean expanding your understanding of “qualified.”

Rena Nigam is the Founder and CEO of Meytier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *