3 Steps to Help Your Company’s Leadership to Reflect Its Workforce

Research shows organizational practices that promote meritocracy often accomplish the opposite.
By: | May 23, 2019 • 5 min read
meritocracy and inclusion

The focus on diversification of senior leadership and corporate boards is intensifying along with growing acknowledgement that the principles of ESG—environment, social and governance—can impact financial performance.

That said, even as executives across industries assert their good intentions—“We would like more diversity in senior leadership”—they confirm their bias—“But we also have to make sure we get the best people.

The second half of the statement is a cringe-worthy moment for some, a matter of fact assertion for others. Its ill-seeming nature may be attributed to what it implies: that seeking talent beyond white males takes us into sub-standard territory. It assumes there are simply not enough qualified women, people of color, or others from diverse backgrounds from which to select potential candidates.

Regrettably, there is a wealth of research demonstrating that “organizational cultures and practices designed to promote meritocracy actually accomplish the opposite.” This is what is known as the fallacy of meritocracy, which is essentially an attachment to meritocratic ideals. As summed up in this Atlantic article—The False Promise of Meritocracy—“If a company evaluates people on their skills, abilities, and merit, without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality etc., and managers are objective in their assessments then there is no need for diversity policies, the thinking goes.” Further, even those who think they are objectively basing decisions on merit often introduce the most bias in their assessments.


The partial cause for this may be attributed to systemic biases that exist outside of the workplace in our communities, culture, and educational system. These systemic biases reinforce hiring, retention, promotion and pay problems in the workplace.

In his Forbes.com article titled Meritocracy is a Chimera,Paolo Guadiano notes that employers upholding a meritocracy will, “albeit unwittingly, continue to perpetuate the systemic biases that favor those already in the majority.” Additionally, Guadiano, the founder of the center for the Quantitative Studies of Diversity and Inclusion at the City College of New York, notes that “absent a completely inclusive culture in a company that is highly diverse, meritocracy—whether intentionally or unintentionally—is simply a way of perpetuating systemic biases and sanctioning discrimination.”

This assessment is a hard pill for folks to swallow, especially those who believe they are in their positions of power due to their own meritocratic rise. One important way to counter the tendency for assumed meritocracy to exacerbate inequality is by focusing on accountable and transparent practices that lead to more fairness and equity.

For example, we shouldn’t simply hire or promote from our own professional or family networks. This seems obvious, yet nepotism remains a predominant feature of staffing and board placement in many corporate and non-profit organizations. If we were to use more accountable and transparent practices, then our board and staff would better reflect the workforce and the customers we serve. That might happen by reaching outside our collective networks to groups of professionals representing different affinity groups, or by any of a variety of other techniques that build more equity into our recruitment systems.