Merit Is Not A Four-Letter Word

Self selection seriously impacts hiring for specialized work.

September 2, 2014
by Michael Hlinka

From the August 2014 print edition

If you had to name two of the most successful up-start companies of the past 20 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google and Facebook would top the list. Google transformed the way we find information on the internet, Facebook the way that people interact. And the investing community has spoken:  At the time of writing, Facebook has a market capitalization of $173 billion and Google comes in at $389 billion. Yet according to one of the stupidest pieces of drivel I’ve come across in a very long time, “a lack of diversity could have a direct impact on their bottom line.”

The writer is Jessica Guynn Elizabeth Weise and her piece appeared in USA Today. What is the problem with those companies—and what exactly is meant by a “lack of diversity”? As it turns out, their workforces are too male, too white and too Asian. Under-represented groups include women, blacks and Hispanics. To that list (this is hers after all) let me add a few: there are almost no Inuit in Silicon Valley. Trying to find an Amish programmer would be like finding a needle in a haystack. How many Nepalese Sherpa are there writing code?

Weise provides some statistics that “prove” her case. Nationally, blacks make up 14 percent of the U.S workforce and Hispanics 12 percent. At Google, three percent of the staff are Hispanic and two percent black. At Yahoo and Facebook, four percent are Hispanic and two percent black. Ergo, discrimination exists, right? She suggests that it may be “unconscious”—that is, you tend to hire people in your network whom you know. And this is unquestionably true. Right now, in my small company (I’m an educational provider for the financial services sector) I have five contract employees.

There is Jason, a white male Canadian. There is Anna, a female Chinese-born (now a Canadian citizen).  There is Asad, a male Pakistani-born (permanent resident.) There is Kirushnalini, a female Canadian-born, parents of Sri Lankan heritage. There is Aeran, a female Korean-born of Chinese heritage, studying in Canada on a student visa. By my count, there are two men, three women, and four of the five are “visible” minorities. However, in Weise’s bizarre world-view, the fact that two are Asian may reduce the diversification benefits, but at least they are female.

I suppose that this might mean I’m some sort of model employer!  But not for the simplistic reasons that are implied by doing a head count based on sex and national origin. I consider myself a model employer, because like the major companies in Silicon Valley, I focus on merit, first and foremost. All of the people I’ve hired were students of mine before they started working for me. They had demonstrated their work ethic in advance of drawing a pay cheque. All of the people I’ve hired indicated a passion for the field in their academic pursuits. All of the people I’ve hired are people whom I consider of superior moral fibre.

Something that seriously impacts hiring for specialized work, whether it’s the computer industry or my line of business, is the self-selection process: who comes to the employer with the required skills? Let’s talk about Google and Facebook. Overwhelmingly, they need computer scientists and programmers. What degrees are black Americans graduating with? According to numbers I saw from 2010, blacks gravitated towards the following disciplines (and I use the term loosely):  school student counseling, human services and community organization and counseling psychology. In my day, we had a term for courses like these ones: bird courses.  Tweet-tweet—you’ve got a degree. But why would companies like Google and Facebook have any need for you?

My suspicion is that the “shortage” of blacks and Hispanics in Silicon Valley is much more a function of the supply side of the equation, than the demand side of the equation. But advancing a thesis like that isn’t likely to sell many newspapers, and that’s the business that journalists like Weise and USA Today are in. Rational and sober analysis is useful precisely to the extent that it might increase circulation. Otherwise, to Hades with it!

Weise’s “theory” is that Google and Facebook will be held back in the future because of their lack of diversity. The logical corollary, of course, is that they should already have been held back in the first place if their selection process was anything but talent-based. That’s the simple and commonsense truth. It’s about merit and nothing else. In that respect, perhaps Google and Facebook don’t have “diverse” workforces because these two organizations are only concerned about excellence, which is merit-driven. On the other hand, it seems to me—a casual reader of USA Today—that this is a newspaper that is far more interested in “diversity” than even competence.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.