You can't run a modern business with a mindset from the Dark Ages.
The idea that there is a war against merit feels like one plucked out of time, full of arguments that have been obliterated for decades. But the unfortunate truth is that many leaders in business today still cling to the same dated ideas. Are you one of them? If you find yourself agreeing that there is such a thing as "reverse discrimination," understand that you – and your business – are at risk of becoming obsolete.
There are no meritocracies
Merit is a funny thing. We all like the sound of a meritocracy. It ought to be the case that a person succeeds based on their hard work, evaluated fairly. There was a time when I believed in it myself.
But your business is made of people, and people are never objective. We do such a bad job of judging merit that we don't even see our own mistakes. We score the merit of a résumé differently based on how white the name sounds. We assess the merit of computer code differently when we know a woman wrote it. Professional symphony musicians can't even hear music objectively when they know who's playing.
Does merit explain your own company's gender or racial distribution? Are you sure? Bias is like a leaky pipe. It's tempting to ignore it, and scary to wonder how much damage it's doing. But eventually you have to confront it, otherwise it can bring your whole house down. Once you start to recognize that we're all fallible on this stuff, instead of pretending it doesn't happen, you can start to make repairs.
The ability to see bias is a skill that you can develop. It's an incredible tool for improving your business, and will allow you to see opportunities everywhere. Some solutions are clear, like using blind résumé screens to avoid up-front biases in hiring. Some take more work to see, and some require creative thinking to undo. But if you're paying attention – if you get curious about where your business has bias leaks – you'll race ahead of the people still crowing about their commitment to meritocracy.
Equality can feel like discrimination
Many business leaders also push back against equality efforts by labelling them "reverse discrimination." It's easy to understand why. A program that takes opportunities away from men by imposing a quota of women to be hired sure feels discriminatory.
It's a silly argument. In science, tech, and business, men have maintained the advantaged position for generations. (White men in particular, and straight white men most particularly.) If we are all interested in building fairer and more just companies, and a better world, we're going to need to get everyone else caught up. That's not discrimination, that's moving towards equality. But equality feels very different when it means giving up an unfair advantage.
In your own company, as Saadia Muzaffar says, "Ask yourself who's not at the table." If you can't stomach the idea of quotas and preferential hiring, can you at least start by looking for representation? Ask yourself where you are missing perspective because of gaps in your hiring and act to fix it. And no, you don't get to blame a lack of applicants.
Modern employees demand modern employers
Tech is a young industry, and that means we're often the first to see new employment trends emerge. What we're seeing right now is a generation of employees who care deeply about the values of the companies they work for. They expect transparency and accountability from their leaders in a way that feels new. They are digital natives, educated and connected. They are very able to walk away when they sense that their employer doesn't get it.
This is a thing you can either fear or embrace. If you don't know how to build a more equitable workplace, the onus is on you to get educated first. Once you start taking those steps, you'll find that this is a generation that understands and respects that work. Don't ask them to do it for you – change in the equality of your company needs to come from the top – but they will stick with you and work hard for you when they believe that your efforts are sincere.
It's tempting, when there are so many frustrations involved in trying to build your business, to see equality work as yet another pain in the behind. I get that. It can be comfortable to roll your eyes at it as more runaway political correctness. But it's a trap. It stops you from doing the hard work required to understand your own biases, confront them, and be better.
The next time you hear yourself saying "I support diversity, but …." Pause for a moment. Ask why you're taking that position, and what fear or discomfort is behind it. And then ask yourself how much better your world would be if you dropped the "but."
Johnathan Nightingale is a founding partner at Raw Signal Group, a management consultancy based in Toronto. He was previously the chief product officer at Hubba, and prior to that ran the Firefox group at Mozilla. He is the editor of the co-pour, a blog about leadership and management.