Study: Meritocracies are a Sham

Last Updated Jun 12, 2011 11:40 AM EDT

This one's got me stumped. A new study from Emilio J. Castilla, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Benard of Indiana University, suggests that the whole idea of meritocracy might not work as well as we'd like to think.

Sometimes, it seems, the very idea of a meritocracy backfires. The researchers found that managers are more likely to discriminate when dealing with employees who are rewarded on merit, and less likely to discriminate if they don't know how employees have been treated.

The two researchers asked 445 people with managerial experience to award bonuses to several employees based on written profiles. There were two ways in which the information given to the managers differed:

  • In some cases, a pair of employees had identical experience but different genders.
  • In some cases, the company's mission statement presented a meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. In others, the mission statement said nothing about how employees were judged or paid.
The result?
  • Managers are more likely to discriminate in a meritocracy. If managers believed the employees worked in a meritocracy, they gave men bigger bonuses than the women, even though the two (fictional) employees had identical experience and qualifications. If managers knew nothing about how employees were being judged or paid, they tended to give men and women the same amount of money as a bonus.
  • Men and women were equally likely to discriminate against women.
  • This finding could apply to race as well, according to the researchers.
Castilla has two explanations for his findings, but to me, neither is entirely persuasive.

Being told they're part of a meritocracy lets people off the hook. Castilla suggests that, in a meritocracy, managers have a false sense of security about the fairness of their judgments. He says that because managers are being told outright that evaluations are being made on merit, they're less likely to examine any biases they might have to the contrary.

Meritocracies give people an outlet to discriminate. Castilla also says it could be that people are sexist and racist, and that a meritocracy gives them an opportunity to exercise those prejudices. But why would that be?

What's the Solution?
The researchers aren't saying we should give up on the idea of evaluations based on merit. They suggest these three steps:

  • using quantitative measures of job performance whenever possible,
  • making sure bosses are well-trained in evaluating people, and
  • giving employees an avenue to appeal if they believe they have been treated unfairly.
But to me, it seems like the research is getting at something deeper. What do you think it could be? Why would a "meritocracy" lead to MORE discrimination? And what have you seen in your own workplaces?

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Image courtesy flickr user terren in Virginia
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.