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A recent article in the Globe and Mail’s careers section caused me to do a triple-take. It quoted studies indicating that the more an organization seeks to be undiscriminating and merit-based in its employment practices, the less likely it is to achieve those objectives.

If that’s truly the case, one can only wonder how human resources professionals will feel about the security of their jobs. After all, introducing policies and procedures aimed at limiting discrimination and emphasizing merit is a significant aspect of what they do.

Leah Eichler’s column, entitled “You can’t get ahead on merit alone” asserted that the idea of a so-called meritocracy doesn’t correspond with the realities of the business world. It cited the ongoing role of unconscious prejudices (gender, racial, etc.) in the modern workplace.

That wasn’t overly shocking to me and wouldn’t be to anyone who makes 21st century workplaces their focus. But the information Eichler cited along the way certainly was.

She referred to a 2010 study called “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations” published by the Administrative Science Quarterly. The study involved asking managers to evaluate employees in fictitious settings.

The results demonstrated that, in an organization in which fairness was emphasized in promotion and compensation decisions, men received larger bonuses than women despite having achieved identical evaluation results. The weird thing is that this phenomenon did not occur in an organization which did not emphasize fairness and merit.

Even stranger (to me) were the comments of Dr. Emilio Castilla of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He cited other studies on cognitive bias in situations in which managers were guided to feel unbiased, fair, and objective.

In those situations, according to Dr. Castilla, individuals are more likely to behave in a biased manner. He stated that in organizations promoting meritocracy as a cultural value – by guiding managers to feel unbiased, fair, or objective – managers are “more likely to express individual bias toward women and racial minorities when making employment decisions.”

What that says to me is that the more managers are pushed to act in a particular manner, the less likely it is to happen. And it makes me wonder what the actual impact is of all the hard efforts of human resources professionals who pursue the desirable objectives of a fair, unbiased, merit-based workplace.

According to Dr. Castilla, the solution to reducing discrimination seems to be to stop promoting merit and fairness and objectivity and, instead, to introduce “organizational practices and structures aimed at increasing transparency and accountability”.

What that really points to, I figure, is that the way to discourage unwanted behavior such as discrimination is to set the system up so that it can’t happen without the perpetrator being caught. That suggests that we are motivated more by fear of being caught than by a desire to do the right thing.

So, if you want your organization to move beyond discrimination and unfairness, apparently you should stop distributing anti-discrimination policies and conducting employee workshops. You should start setting up systemic checks and balances which reveal the existence of discrimination and unfairness and then hang the wrongdoers out to dry as an example to others.

It’s a somewhat less happy vision of the modern workplace. And one in which the role of human resources professionals – at least as we presently know them – is uncertain.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.