But is this true? Do commitments to meritocracy and objectivity lead to more fair workplaces?
Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has explored how meritocratic ideals and HR practices like pay-for-performance play out in organizations, and he’s come to some unexpected conclusions.
In one company study, Castilla examined almost 9,000 employees who worked as support-staff at a large service-sector company. The company was committed to diversity and had implemented a merit-driven compensation system intended to reward high-level performance and to reward all employees equitably.
But Castilla’s analysis revealed some very non-meritocratic outcomes. Women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, receiving the same performance score. Despite stating that “performance is the primary bases for all salary increases,” the reality was that women, minorities, and those born outside the U.S. needed “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men.”
These findings led Castilla to wonder if organizational cultures and practices designed to promote meritocracy actually accomplished the opposite. Could it be that the pursuit of meritocracy somehow triggered bias? Along with his colleague, the Indiana University sociology professor Stephen Bernard, they designed a series of lab experiments to find out. Each experiment had the same outcome. When a company’s core values emphasized meritocratic values, those in managerial positions awarded a larger monetary reward to the male employee than to an equally performing female employee. Castilla and Bernard termed their counter intuitive result “the paradox of meritocracy.”
The paradox of meritocracy builds on other research showing that those who think they are the most objective can actually exhibit the most bias in their evaluations. When people think they are objective and unbiased then they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate. Yet, studies repeatedly show that stereotypes of all kinds (gender, ethnicity, age, disability etc.) are filters through which we evaluate others, often in ways that advantage dominant groups and disadvantage lower-status groups. For example, studies repeatedly find that the resumes of whites and men are evaluated more positively than are the identical resumes of minorities and women.
This dynamic is precisely why meritocracy can exacerbate inequality—because being committed to meritocratic principles makes people think that they actually are making correct evaluations and behaving fairly. Organizations that emphasize meritocratic ideals serve to reinforce an employee’s belief that they are impartial, which creates the exact conditions under which implicit and explicit biases are unleashed.