Talent, positive discrimination and creating a true meritocracy

Stephen Frost
Stephen Frost

Let’s start on a point that nearly all of us can agree on: organisations in competitive markets need the very best talent. And we should recruit, promote and retain talent on the basis of merit, and merit alone.

We can generally agree that if someone is selected or promoted on the basis of identity, rather than merit, that is a process best avoided. No one wants a token, or to be one.

Now let’s move on to a point where opinions diverge. Let’s ask a question that is seldom asked; how do we define “best”? What does “best” look like?

‘Sameness’ is seductive

For many professionals, “best” is something determined unconsciously by our life experience to date. Around 98% of brain activity is unconscious. And it’s the unconscious that can govern what we really think.

In organisations, ‘best’ tends to be people that look like us. People we can relate to with minimum effort, share a sense of humour or a drink with, be comfortable around.  It is probably people in our existing networks, or at least people we meet and can quickly understand to be in our “in-group”. It is definitely not people in an “out-group”, who may threaten us, or our world view.

It is in this pursuit of comfort that we subject ourselves to danger. Surrounding ourselves with people like us, which is entirely natural and understandable, is a sure fire way to develop group-think and to avoid the necessary rigour and healthy conflict that are essential to good decision-making. That is fine for a night down the pub, but not for an organisation facing complex challenges.

Learning from the world around us

In the natural world, we understand biodiversity to be an important part of healthy ecosystems. In Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ he identified that fields of grasses where the species were more distantly related were more productive than those that were closely related.

In the financial world, we understand diverse product portfolios to be an important risk-mitigation mechanism. When we place all our bets on the same products or strategies, we expose the market to massive systemic risk, as we experienced in 2008.

Yet when it comes to our people we have failed thus far to learn sufficiently from nature and to learn from finance that diversity can increase our productivity, increase our resilience and reduce systemic risk.

In the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Organising Committee, we consciously chose different people. This diversity was not the proverbial “bed of roses”, it was sometimes full of healthy conflict and occasionally uncomfortable. But it unquestionably made for a more rigorous decision-making process, and a more creative output, as witnessed in the Everyone’s 2012 spectacle.

Political correctness and positive discrimination

Political correctness was actually a term coined in the 1970s as a completely understandable and, I would argue, justifiable response to downright dangerous and offensive language regarding minorities. However, it has since acquired negativity of its own, and is still often used to discredit anything that might challenge the norm that has served some people very well.

Now we have “positive discrimination”, a term that is the weapon of choice to discredit any action that might be completely justified in combating an inefficient labour market, or an unjust hiring decision.

An example would be female promotions. In a recent round of promotions at a professional services firm, some brilliant women made it through the selection process and were promoted to partner. In fact, of all promotions in the firm, 33% were female, above its current female population of 14%. When the norm is 86% male, anything that challenges that norm can be discredited as “positive discrimination”, even though every one of the women that was promoted was better than other men (or women).

The illusion of objectivity

We understandably regard the current situation as normal. We have an illusion of objectivity and assume that our labour markets are efficient. Yet recent work at KPMG demonstrates the danger inherent in this assumption – by modelling recruitment, promotion and retention, and projecting this forward three years, we could identify that if organisations do nothing, in the absence of inclusive leadership, they actually become less diverse.

Labour markets are actually deeply inefficient. One of the reasons for this inefficiency is the prevalence of bias.  We prefer sameness to difference. Using data and black-and-white numbers to point out the case for promotions or recruitment is essential in refuting allegations of positive discrimination.

For example, at director level in one company there were 28% women, yet at the next level up there were only 7% women. Assuming talent and IQ were evenly distributed among the sexes (and we have no evidence to suggest otherwise), then more or less 28% of promotions would be female. The fact that the promotion rate has historically been significantly less than this suggests an inefficiency (as well as an injustice).

So, while positive discrimination is in most cases disagreeable, the term can also be a lazy crutch, used as a label to discredit selection and promotion decisions we disagree with. If we really want the best, then we should have no problem with a wider talent pool, more competition, or challenging our norms and current world view.

Diversity is no bed of roses. It means more, not less, competition. But it also makes for stronger, more resilient organisations, more productive workforces (when led well) and less risky decision-making.  Above all, diversity is the enemy of mediocrity.

We can all oppose positive discrimination.  We can all avoid anti-competitive, anti-diversity excuses as well.


  1. Monty

    Mr Frost is rather let down by the inconsistent arguments he advances. He cites with approval a company with an 86% male workforce in which 33% of promotions went to "brilliant women" who he asserts "were better than the men (and other women)" (one wonders how he would know) then later in the article argues that as 28% of directors in another company were female 28% of promotions to the next level should have been female and the fact they weren't was an injustice. If that argument is valid then females should only have got 14% of promotions in the first company.
    Also, Newton's Law applies. For each and every act of positive discrimination there is a negative impact on the career of someone who is not benefitting from career advancement privileges. And, in any event, Positive Discrimination is illegal.
    Mr Frost is right in arguing the benefits of diversity and the widening of competition. That said it is diversity of thought and outlook that matter not this mantra of "everything must be representative" which is complete nonsense. We want the best regardless of identity, which is where I come back to agreeing with Mr Frost.

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  2. Stuart Hathaway

    There is no inconsistency. What he actually said was.

    " director level in one company there were 28% women, yet at the next level up there were only 7% women. Assuming talent and IQ were evenly distributed among the sexes (and we have no evidence to suggest otherwise), then more or less 28% of promotions would be female. The fact that the promotion rate has historically been significantly less than this suggests an inefficiency (as well as an injustice)".

    This points out that in the absence of actual evidence as to why there are only 7% women senior directors (which may perhaps be objectively justified on investigation), an initial analysis suggests that there may be some inefficiency in the selection process, which means that the best people are not having their talents recognised (which is unfair to them) and used (which is harmful to the business). Note the 'more or less 28%'; he does not say 'must be exactly 28% to reflect the pool from which they are drawing'.

    Also, if you have two candidates for a post who are equally talented and suitable based on the formal recruitment criteria, then you have to use some other criterion for chosing between them. It would of course be inefficient and unfair to select a less competent candidate merely to fulfil a 'diversification' objective - as well as patronising to that candidate and potentially setting them up to fail. However, given a current imbalance between men and women, between persons of different ethnic origins, etc., in higher grades, I don't think it unreasonable at this stage of development to select between two otherwise equal candidates on the basis of expanding the diversity of the higher grades against their historic makeup (and I say that as a white middle-aged graduate who is likely to be the 'victim' of such a policy).

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  3. Bill Phillips

    I agree with Monty that there is an inconsistency.

    In one case Stephen Frost asserts that a large proportion of female promotions is good, insisting that it happened because they were the best, in the other he is quick to assume that a large proportion of male promotions is unjust. In the first case he does not share the evidence with us, in the second he does not bother looking for any. It is his approach to evidence that is inconsistent. Perhaps both results were justified, perhaps neither, but the he was quick to assume that one was not.

    I am a firm believer in meritocracy; if that results in one group doing better than another then so be it; however, one must have evidence that this is not a result of discrimination.

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  4. Florence Davies

    Great article Stephen! Points well made.......

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