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Meritocracy: The Lie

I’ve never been comfortable with this whole meritocracy in the workplace thing. Not when I was a corporate cog, not when I was in charge of HR, not when I consult with organizations, not when I read about and observe the world past and present. I have finally put my finger on why I can’t stand the whole concept. It’s a lie.

In theory, people advance in companies (or society) because they score well on specific business metrics. Targets that are exceeded can earn you a promotion or a raise. Not meeting your goals can cause your career to stall or get you fired. As I said, that’s the theory. In reality, elaborate systems are put in place to measure all sorts of things and individual performance is plugged into the formula and, voila, it doesn’t matter in the end. That person’s fate will have little to do with how they scored. That’s the dirty secret that happens in performance management review sessions. But companies feel virtuous in public that they are a meritocracy.

I’ll give you two true stories from my HR days.

Chris was a talented and smart VP who was handed a failing part of the business. The executive thinking was: it’s so far in the red, we’ll give this pile of crap to someone we aren’t sure of in the first place, if they fail we’ll close that business down and Chris will be gone. Within 18 months the business was in the black and growing. Staff from around the building were putting in transfers in hopes of working for Chris. By every measure, Chris had not only exceeded all expectations but surprised the executives.

In a true meritocracy, Chris would have been promoted or given a huge bonus. Instead, Chris was let go in the midst of a business downturn. Hmmm, wouldn’t you want people who had a track record of pulling the business out of the jaws of defeat? No matter how hard I advocated to keep Chris, nothing worked.

Oh, did I mention that Chris is a woman? Oh, and she’s African American. Might that have mattered? You betcha. What happened to all the stellar metrics?

Pat was revered around the company as the go-to person in the finance department. As the number two person to the CFO, Pat was more accessible and helpful to everyone, including the CEO. During succession planning discussions, Pat was “ready now” to replace the CFO when the opportunity came around. All the boxes had been checked, all the metrics were perfect. When the CFO slot opened up, Pat was not selected. Instead, someone who was politically tight with the CEO with much less relevant experience was put into the role. Pat immediately began job hunting and quickly landed the number one position at a different company. What happened to meritocracy in this case?

Oh, I forgot to mention that Pat is a gay man. The new CFO resembles the CEO; a white straight man. Work hard and you will be rewarded? I think not.

Even in cases where sexual orientation, gender or race were not factors, I heard a million excuses why someone who had proven their merit did not ascend into the role they were being groomed for. Too quiet. Not aggressive enough. I just don’t get them. I like this other person better. Tenure needs to be rewarded. They’ll leave if we don’t promote them. Ostensibly, a meritocracy with clear measures will motivate people to do their best and earn new roles. In reality, people knock themselves out to excel and, in the end, the reasons why someone succeeds or not are as arbitrary as ever.

We would be better off not pretending. Companies should declare the truth: We do need to measure performance in lots of ways and there are other factors that go into advancement. This is not an objective exercise. Subjectivity still reigns and it is often unfair. Just like real life.

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