Is selection based on merit a myth?
September 04 2019 12:31 AM
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Sonia Sodha

The sweaty palms, the swotting, the tricky question that prompts your heart to plummet: job interviews are no-one’s idea of a good time. The other side of the equation is hardly fun either: days out of a busy schedule spent interviewing candidates, some of whom you know within a couple of minutes you would never offer a job.
Interviews are time-consuming for all involved. But we persist in doing them because recruitment decisions are some of the most important we take in the workplace and it follows we should invest time and energy into a robust recruitment process, right?
Wrong. It is long established that unstructured interviews are a notoriously unreliable way of selecting the best people for the job. This is perhaps unsurprising, when you consider the limited overlap between the skills needed to ace an interview and perform well day to day in a job or on a university course. And how many of us can honestly say we have been 100% truthful in a job interview?
Experimental studies show how unreliable interviewers are at accurately predicting someone’s capabilities. This is borne out on the rare occasions it gets tested in the real world. In the late 1970s, there was a doctor shortage in Texas and politicians instructed the state medical school to increase its admissions, after it had already selected 150 applicants after interview. So it took another 50 candidates who had reached the interview stage and been rejected, even though many of the stronger rejected candidates had already been snapped up by other medical schools. Researchers found these 50 students performed just as well as the original crop. Once the candidates got through the on-paper sift, they might as well have been drawn out of a hat.
Not only are interviews a generally bad way to spot talent, they are terrible at smuggling in bias. There are the obvious implicit biases — sexism, racism, ageism, class discrimination — but others also exist. According to psychologist Ron Friedman, we tend to perceive good-looking people to be more competent, tall candidates as having greater leadership potential and deep-voiced candidates as more trustworthy. Interviews also encourage us to pick people who look like us, think similarly to us and with whom we strike up an easy rapport. The myth of the meritocratic interview allows all sorts of prejudice to flourish.
These days, huge effort goes into trying to unpick these biases in interviews. Vast sums are spent on unconscious bias training, but the evidence as to its effectiveness is mixed at best. It turns out training a person’s subconscious to think differently isn’t as easy as a half-day course.
This is why it is no substitute for breaking down the structures that allow these biases to fester. For example, managers might only be allowed to make an appointment once they have a sufficiently diverse shortlist. I’ve long been a believer in quotas for underrepresented groups where improving diversity is happening at a glacial pace, for example, in Oxbridge admissions.
But a recent conversation with a friend who works at Nesta, a charitable foundation, got me thinking about whether we should ditch the pretence that we can accurately predict people’s potential. Her organisation is experimenting with a lottery to award funding to staff for innovative projects. Employees can put forward their own proposal. All of those that meet a minimum set of criteria go into a draw, with a number selected for funding at random.
My initial thought was that this sounded bonkers. But ponder it more and the logic is sound. Not only does it eliminate human bias, it encourages creativity and avoids groupthink, discouraging staff from self-censoring because they think their idea is one management simply wouldn’t go for. It chimes with those who have argued that at least some science funding should be awarded by lottery, because in the contemporary world of peer review and scoring grids, risky ideas with potentially huge pay-offs do not attract sufficient funding.
Random selection embodies a very different conception of fairness to meritocracy. But if we accept that what we call meritocracy is predominantly a way for advantage to self-replicate, why not at least experiment with lotteries instead? Big graduate recruiters or Oxbridge courses could set “on paper” entry criteria, select candidates who meet them at random and test whether there are any differences with candidates selected by interview.
I am willing to bet that, as observed in Texas, they would do no worse. And that there would be other benefits: diversity of thought as well as diversity of demography. Quotas are often criticised for their potential to undermine those individuals who benefit from positive discrimination; everyone knows they are there not purely on merit, or so the argument goes. An element of random selection might engender a bit more humility on the part of white, middle-class men; it goes alongside being honest that meritocracy is a convenient mask for privilege.
The reason such experiments remain unlikely is that studies show that even when people are aware of the fallibility of interviews, they sustain incredible self-belief in their ability to buck the trend. Not only that, there are a lot of powerful people with a stake in maintaining the illusion of meritocracy. Oxford and Cambridge want to preserve the misconception that their selection procedures embody the creme de la creme of today selecting the creme de la creme of tomorrow.
But if you find yourself baulking at random selection, ask yourself this: have you ever formed a first impression that was wrong? It might go against the grain, but making more liberal use of lotteries might produce not just a fairer but a better and more diverse world. — The Guardian



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