Evaluating Employees? Managers Need to Be Aware of the Meritocracy Paradox

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Oct 23, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Many organizations fancy themselves a meritocracy, or a place where things like bias and discrimination have no sway and every employee is rewarded and promoted based on their merit and talent alone.

America itself was founded on the idea of a meritocracy, and the idea of social equality is part of our national DNA.

In fact, so ingrained is the idea of merit-based achievement in our population, most of us are apt to believe in the idea of American meritocracy, even when it goes against our self-interests.

Bonus conundrum

But does the idea of a meritocracy hold up in the real world? Most of the research done over the last 10 years shows that the idea of an American meritocracy is problematic at best, and at worst, still susceptible to institutionalized racial and gender biases we can’t always perceive.

Take this Cornell University study for example: They found that even when a company promotes meritocracy from within (compared to when it doesn’t), managers may ironically show greater bias in favor of men over equally performing women when it comes to employee evaluations.

When asked to evaluate and reward employees with a cash bonus based on their merits alone, the managers in the experiment reflexively awarded men around $50 more per bonus, a result that was consistent through three controlled experiments.

Equal opportunity

This reveals what the Cornell researchers dubbed the “Meritocracy Paradox.” Even though we have a deep-rooted desire to perceive everyone as equal, we live in a society that tends to err toward inequality, whether it’s economic, racial, or gender-based.

In other words, we want to be the land of equal opportunity and upward mobility, but at the same time we subconsciously know those two things are not always easy to come by – the struggle of the honest American.

Take another study on meritocracy from the University of Miami sociology department. In a survey of white Californians, researchers found that they generally favor college admission policies that place a priority on high school grade point averages and standardized test scores. But when they focused on the success of Asian-American students, suddenly their views changed.

When half of the participants were informed subtly in a prompt before the survey that Asian-American students make up a large segment of California undergrads, they favored a reduced role for grades and test scores, apparently based on high achievement levels and test scores from Asian-American students.

Unconscious bias, it would seem, only takes one small psychological trigger to express itself.

Unconsciously conscious

For contrast, let’s look at the U.S. Navy, who has had an uphill PR battle with things like gender equality for many years. After the Tailhook scandal and being criticized for being an “Old Boys’ Club,” they changed their promotion process a little over a decade ago.

No longer did the predominately while male higher-ups meet over cigars to discuss who gets promoted – instead they implemented a completely blind process where the candidates’ gender and race are withheld, thereby eliminating all unconscious bias and forcing promotions to be entirely achievement-based.

The result? Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of all Rear-Admiral promotions in 2013 were women, and in 2014 they promoted their first woman ever to the rank of 4-star Admiral – a huge victory considering that women only make up about 16 percent of the Navy.

A true paradox

None of this should be construed to mean that we are all terrible people for allowing this to happen. The big takeaway here is that when left to our own devices, we are highly susceptible to falling back on institutionalized biases, and in our fervor to be fair we can end up subconsciously expressing the very biases we try to repress – a true paradox.

This is something that every manager should be aware of when evaluating employees, no matter their race or gender. In a society rife with inequality, we must be doubly conscious of it when attempting to have a level playing field at work.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.