A blog on hiring for “merit” has come across one of my input streams today, and I’ve decided to share a few thoughts on that subject.

This article is in response to an article – actually a pair of articles – written by a famous person in the “Agile” community. You can find them if you try: I’m not going to provide a link to them, because I disagree with them strongly1. What follows here are my thoughts on hiring, with as little reference to those other articles as I can manage.

I do need some context. The word “merit” will do. Some people would have us believe that a focus on hiring women, people of color, people of different orientation, or Rodents Of Unusual Size, goes against the (somehow preferable) idea of hiring people based on “merit”. Not to hire on “merit” is, somehow, “dishonorable”.

My plan here is to dispose of that notion.

We hire people to help our organization.

First of all, an organization doesn’t hire people because they “merit” hiring. They don’t inherently deserve to be hired, they’re not automatically worthy of being hired because of some internal properties. An organization hires an individual because the organization believes that person will help the organization accomplish its goals.

Now it’s true that we want to base our belief that they can help us on our assessment of the candidate’s properties, aspects, characteristics. We could wrap that assessment up in the word “merit” but the word is too loaded and doesn’t properly communicate the notion that this person will help this organization. We’re thinking about and predicting a relationship, not assessing the candidate on some absolute scale of some kind.

We hire people because we believe that the relationship between the organization and the candidate will benefit the organization.2

Our organization wants and needs many things. The organization has wants and needs relating to:

  • Some some particular team;
  • Building its product;
  • The community it lives in;
  • Society as a whole.

Every organization has some kind of wants and needs relating to these. Even the most Rand-ite organization can at least say “We have no responsibility to our community or to society”. I’m thankful that most organizations are more enlightened than that. (And saddened that they’re not as enlightened as they might be, and that some are horribly benighted.)

What I’d call a “good” company has goals for its relationship to community and society that align with mine. You, I suppose, would want those goals to align with yours before you’d call a company “good”.

Let’s look at two examples. Google has been in the news recently for firing a man who wrote a tone-deaf memo suggesting that hiring women meant hiring inferior employees. On a more positive note, Martin Fowler wrote an article about the mistaken illusion that diversity implies mediocrity.

These companies include social goals of diversity as part of their very being. I happen to agree with these goals, and I support organizations who work toward goals like that.3

Let’s tie this back to the hiring of members of underrepresented groups. There is no issue here of lesser “merit” or “value” or “skill” or even “benefit to our organization”. It may take longer to find a sufficiently qualified woman, or person of color or of unusual orientation or size, but they are out there. We do not have to compromise on quality in order to support diversity. We might have to spend a bit more time and money on recruiting, and that’s just fine with me.

So the bottom line here is this:

First, people don’t inherently “merit” a job. When we hire a candidate, it’s because we believe that candidate will do a good, hopefully great job of helping the company with all its wants and needs.

Second, a company always has wants and needs relating to community and society.

Third, I favor companies whose focus on community and society are more like mine, which have to do with everyone having a fair shot at a productive, happy, healthy life.

Fourth, there’s no need to compromise on “quality” when hiring for diversity. We just have to do it.

And … we have to do it. It would be “dishonorable” to hire for anything other than a real fit with our organization’s overall objectives, including improving our community and society.

  1. You might object to my “sub-tweeting” my objections to the articles in question. On the contrary: First of all, I’m writing my own thoughts here, not criticizing anyone else’s. Second, I don’t feel required to give more air time to ideas which I find odious. Third, if you’re connected to the universe at all, you know darn well what article I’m talking about. Fourth, if you’re not connected, read my Twitter stream. 

  2. And the reverse. We want the relationship to benefit the candidate as well. Not just because we’re humane, but because if it doesn’t benefit the candidate, our relationship will not benefit the organization for long. 

  3. Maybe you do not support such goals. Well, I’d like to understand how that’s possible for you, but we are fated not to agree unless you come around to my point of view. I myself do not plan to abandon the idea of making a better world.