We all value skills and experience in the workplace. It stands to reason that any business will favour the more experienced worker and the more appropriate skill set for some very sensible commercial reasons. Even from early school, we are encouraged to take part in experiential development exercises such as Duke of Edinburgh awards and school vocational excursions. Apprenticeships, on the job training and further and higher education vocational qualifications all speak of the importance of experience and skills in the workplace. They are, in many cases, our measure of merit and the foundations of how we progress through our careers.   

The idea that an individual will advance through merit is inherent in our society. The focus on social mobility through education and vocational opportunity at governmental level reflects the seriousness with which the idea of a meritocracy is regarded. Even in a traditionally privilege-based society such as our own, we still value the ability to advance through aptitude to such a degree that it is a core part of our values. Advancement based on merit seems, on the surface at least, to be a fair way of progressing in the workplace.   

The principle that those who are most able will naturally excel seems fair and just. In practice, though, it could lead to unconsciously favouring particular groups and even accidentally promoting exclusivity. 

The potential flaw in merit-based advancement

In fairness, it is a little misleading to talk about a flaw in the idea of merit-based advancement. The problem is not in the clearly sensible notion that skills and experience matter at a commercial level; it is in the question of access to the development necessary to acquire them.  

Social mobility can only happen if a wide range of opportunities for mobility exists in the first place. This is, unfortunately, sometimes not the case due to location, ethnicity, and economic factors. Even though we have made great strides in the past decade or so, privilege because of geography, ethnicity, gender, and other factors still exist. While this needs to be combatted at a national and local level, the continued goal of a more diverse and inclusive workplace can be more easily addressed.  

It starts with recognition. The hidden exclusivity generated by a well-meaning workplace meritocracy needs to be recognised for what it is. Once we see the unconscious bias that is created by current merit-only assessment, we start to recognise that alone it is not enough to support access for all. This is a must if we want a diverse and inclusive workforce. Without intending to do so, a meritocracy often favours those employees who were initially able to access a more supportive family, economic, cultural, or educational background. Although the gap is shrinking, it is sometimes the case that those who display the merit benchmark have the advantage of privilege.  

What we also need to recognise is that privilege is the catalyst for these skills and experience that we value so highly. It is not necessarily an indicator of ability or potential; it is a measure of current skills or experience. In short, unless countered by an employment and development policy that helps to negate its influence, privilege can become endemic and help create a workplace where those who do not fit its profile are disadvantaged.  

The effect of privilege is to isolate and exclude potentially excellent colleagues in favour of those who simply had more access to opportunities. It is unintentional and unconscious, but it can undermine the well-meaning systems in place to encourage advancement in the workplace and those designed to promote inclusivity.