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As a white man, I want to address my fellow white decision-makers for a minute. If you believe in hiring the best person for the job, that probably means you unconsciously believe in hiring white men.

Ah, that’s not true, you say. You’re colour- and gender-blind. You know how to spot the best person for a job.

But Stefanie Johnson, a professor of organizational leadership at the University of Colorado, says research and reality suggest you’re wrong. The reality is that the overwhelming number of leaders in our organizations are white men, all chosen by meritocracy managers like yourself. Seeing all those male leaders, she argues that white decision-makers have come to see leadership as a male endeavour – something men are better at – and give those candidates the nod, often going against the grain of the gender balance in the organization. Similarly, you downplay the talents of people of colour.

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She points in her book Inclusify to a 2010 research study in which when participants were given resumes and asked to rate them based on merit, they chose men, even though the resumes were randomly changed so the equivalent qualifications might be given a male name before one meritocracy-minded rater and a female name for another meritocracy-minded rater. A similar study found Black applicants half as likely to receive a callback or job offer after job interviews as white applicants, even though they were all trained to standardize their interview behaviour. Black and Latino applicants fared no better than white applicants supposedly just released from prison.

“The results indicate that when you tell people to hire on the basis of meritocracy, they actually favour white men. When they told individuals that an organization valued meritocracy – rewarding people in accordance with their performance – they responded by favouring a male employee over an equally qualified female employee. Making a hiring decision based on meritocracy caused them to adopt very un-meritocratic decision-making by giving an unfair advantage to men,” she writes.

The problem, let’s repeat because it is so counter-intuitive, is that the belief in seeking merit gives reign to our stereotypes to delude us. That’s important to accept with all the recent calls to attack systemic racism in our organizations. We could double down on our desire to hire and promote on merit – a seemingly anti-racist act – but still fail if we don’t grapple with our mindsets.

Meritocracy managers, she argues, miss out because they end up with homogeneous teams, leaving them with organizational blind spots and competency gaps. Just like you can’t build a successful football team by only hiring quarterbacks, you need to find people with different skills to complement one.

Her call is to “inclusify,” an enticing if vague phrase that boils down to celebrating uniqueness and encouraging belonging. As an “inclusifyer,” you should lead in a way that recognizes different and dissenting perspectives while creating a collaborative and open-minded environment in which all employees feel they belong.

She says inclusifyers “don’t try to be blind to race, gender or sexual orientation, as many people proudly say they are. To reinforce uniqueness, blindness just does not work.” Saying you are colour-blind tells someone of colour that you don’t see them as of lesser value than a white person – an insulting notion, implying white is the norm.

As well, she says “seeing everyone as the same denies people their basic human need of uniqueness. I think of my race and gender as something that adds value to the conversation, rather than something that should be ignored.” Finally, stressing your colour or gender blindness can deny that someone might have experienced racism or sexism in the past.

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Johnson recommends your organization remove names from applications before evaluating them. When promoting, create a list of the best-qualified candidates rather than defaulting to candidates nominated by managers. Compare those two lists and look for diversity disparities. Also, become more transparent about recruitment, promotion and pay; such transparency links, according to research, to higher productivity and innovation and lower turnover.

“Increasing transparency will require you to consider how you are setting the criteria for ‘the best person for the job.’ Try to research all the nuances of how promotions are made, how pay is determined, how anyone gets into the high potential pool, then examine those practices to see if there’s any way they could be biased,” she writes.

To make your workplace inclusive, Johnson believes you must notice and celebrate difference. See the uniqueness in people, appreciate it, and use it to build a better organization. Value and accept people for who they are. Treat them fairly. Start talking to people so that you can better understand their perspectives. Mentor people different from you.

Move beyond the belief that you aren’t susceptible to biases, and accept that you probably are.

Cannonballs

  • Accept that you have biases, especially affinity bias – a more favourable view of somebody like yourself, urges inclusion consultant Ruchika Tulshyan.
  • In addressing your biases, leadership trainer Massella Dukuly says you should consider your past, present and future selves. Reflect on times in the past when you could have done more to include or advocate for others. Consider recent situations with a racial backdrop where you have been tense. Anticipate situations where biases may leap out in future, particularly as society calls for inclusion of groups unfamiliar or off-putting for you.
  • The experience people have with your brand is in the hands of the person you pay the least, notes entrepreneur Seth Godin. Act accordingly, with training, trust and proper leadership.

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