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  • Writer's pictureEmily Maxie

Why Hiring “The Best for the Job” Isn’t That Simple

Imagine for a moment you’re a man who’s job searching. You’re tired of jumping from job to job — you want to find a company you can stick with for the long haul. You want to find a professional “home,” and that means not just finding a job you love but also finding a group of people you enjoy working with.

Now imagine that you see a job opening at a company. The role looks amazing. The perks are great. But when you navigate to the company’s team page and you see a LOT of women. In fact, you only see two other men in the whole company of more than 30 people. You don’t have anything against women, but you think to yourself, “Surely a huge discrepancy like this didn’t happen by accident. Maybe they’re only looking to hire women.”

But you don’t really care. You’re a professional looking to drive business results. Gender shouldn’t even be a factor. You like the role and you like the company, so you apply.

You’re immediately called in for an interview with the company’s partners — all women. In your interview, one of the partners says, “We want to hire more men, we just don’t know where to find them.” Another partner adds, “We’ve been trying to hire more men for a while, but we’re not willing to compromise on the quality of the person we hire.”

You appreciate the compliment, but you also hear an underlying message: “Most men don’t measure up to our high standards. You’re one of the few who does. If we found more men like you, we’d hire more, but we haven’t found any.”

You start to wonder what criteria these women are using to evaluate potential hires if you’re one of the few men they’ve found that measures up.

The Paradox of Meritocracy

This idea of “hiring the best person for the job” — a meritocracy — sounds amazing. After all, that’s what true feminists strive for — not being catered to or given something we don’t deserve. We want to be rewarded for merit (ability + effort) in a way that’s equal to our male peers.

When you have a strong commitment to meritocratic ideals, it’s easy to be suspicious of efforts to support particular demographic groups. For example, programs designed to recruit or provide development opportunities to underrepresented groups are often seen as “reverse discrimination.” After all, if you hire for merit without consideration for gender, race or sexuality, there’s no need for diversity policies, right?

But do commitments to objectivity and meritocracy lead to more fair workplaces? MIT professor Emilio J. Castilla decided to explore meritocratic ideals, and he came to some surprising conclusions.

In one study, he examined almost 9,000 support-staff employees at a large company that had implemented a merit-driven compensation system. The company intended to reward high performance fairly across all gender and racial divides.

But Castilla’s research found that women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees got smaller bonuses than white men, despite having the same job, supervisors, and — most importantly — receiving the same performance rating.

These findings made Castilla wonder if organizational cultures designed to promote meritocracy actually end up accomplishing the opposite. So Castilla and a colleague from Indiana University designed a series of lab experiments to find out.

Each experiment had the same outcome — when a company’s core value emphasizes meritocratic values, managers give men larger bonuses than they give equally performing women. However, when merit isn’t emphasized, managers give both women and men similar bonuses. Castilla and Bernard termed this result as “the paradox of meritocracy.” I encourage you to read the full report — it’s fascinating.

The Myth of Objectivity

I like to think of myself as an objective person. I evaluate facts and make decisions based on those facts. So I was surprised (and a little unnerved) to find that people who think they are objective or unbiased are actually more likely to behave in biased ways.

Why? Because if you believe you’re objective and fair, you’re more confident that your beliefs are valid, and you’re more likely to act on your beliefs, according to a study by the Kellogg School of Management.

“Discrimination increases not only with the ambiguity of the situation but also with decision-makers’ sense of their own personal objectivity and invulnerability to bias,” researchers say. “Insofar as individuals believe themselves to be objective perceivers of the world… they view their beliefs as valid, and they perceive those who hold different views as poorly informed or biased.”

Hiring for Culture Fit

There’s no question that you should hire the best talent for the job you’re looking to fill. However, it’s worth considering how you evaluate talent and how heavily you weigh factors like, “culture fit.” At too many companies, culture fit means judging whether you’d like to have a beer with the person. But where does that leave candidates that don’t drink, dislike beer, or have after-work responsibilities like children? Unfortunately, hiring based on culture fit can be a recipe for only hiring people who are similar to the team you already have.

“It is an incredibly vague term, and it’s a vague term often based on gut instinct,” says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein. “The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone. People can’t tell you what aspect of the culture they are worried about.”

One Kellogg School of Management study found that hiring is more than just a process of skills sorting — it’s also “a process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms.” The study found that employers were more likely to hire candidates who were culturally similar to themselves in terms of life experiences, leisure pursuits, and self-presentation styles.

And if you find out that you and a candidate have one thing in common, you may mistakenly think they’re more similar to you in other ways too. Adrianna Jenkins conducted a brain scan study on this at Harvard University. She found that once a person has an initial piece of information about someone being similar to themselves or different, they seem to take it and run with it. They may think the person is similar to themselves in many other ways.

“What’s perhaps most interesting about the research is that it suggests that we may automatically think about the minds of other people in the way in which we think about ourselves,” Adrianna explains. “But this courtesy may be automatically restricted to those we perceive at first glance to be similar.”

Bias Isn’t the Enemy

Our personal experiences make each and every one of us see the world in a unique and different way. Being biased isn’t a problem — in fact, it’s unavoidable. It’s important to recognize and understand the personal biases you bring to the table. If you’re interested in knowing more about your own biases about gender, race, or religion, try some of Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests.

For example, I found that my brain strongly links men with careers and women with families. This isn’t a big surprise because I was raised in the South, with most of the adults in my life taking on traditional gender roles (and there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way). Another woman my same age and race might have completely different unconscious biases because of her own personal experiences.

The key isn’t “fixing” your biases, but recognizing them and being aware of how they shape the way you see the world. Not only is it important to recognize your biases, but also to surround yourself with people who have different biases (aka diversity). This would yield a team that is more capable as a whole in tackling complex problems that require creative solutions.

Standing in the Gap

This is the point in the blog post where I’d usually give some practical advice. I’d tell you how to fix this problem at your company, how to hire more women and people of color. But the sad truth is that it’s simply hard to do. The problems facing underrepresented groups are widespread and societal. They’re much bigger than a single company, and they can’t be fixed by a single person.

So where do we go from here?

A Reboot podcast I listened to recently introduced me to the concept of the Tragic Gap. This is the space that exists between today’s hard realities and the future we know is possible. Standing in the Tragic Gap is a place of tension. But if we don’t stand in that gap, we risk tipping into corrosive cynicism or irrelevant idealism. Idealism is irrelevant because if we fail to recognize how difficult the world is right now, we’re no longer a part of the action.

Instead of giving you quick tips on diversity and inclusion, I’d like to invite you to stand with me in the gap. Continue fighting for the better reality that you know is possible. Don’t give way to cynicism or idealism, but sit with the tension and let that tension drive you to take action. What does “taking action” mean for you?

For me, it means speaking out on topics like this — the ones that light a fire in my belly. It means having deep and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about how we can be more inclusive with my fellow leaders at Very. It means “showing up” day in and day out with the knowledge that we have a sizeable gap between today’s harsh realities and the future I know is possible. And using that tension, that discomfort, to drive change, little by little.

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