by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR
Some might have the philosophy that they ‘hire only the best and the brightest.’ This is both shortsighted and a fallacy. The best teams, units, and organizations have a mixture of complementary talents. This was covered in detail as a basic diversity principle in the earlier blog post called “Diversity is a Talent Philosophy.” Second, how would anyone know everyone and also have the divine discernment to identify who is indeed ‘the best?’ The truth is — and research shows — the best is often based upon a group of preconceived notions, assumptions, potential biases, or a series of preferences.
The selection of ‘best’ should be contextual and based upon an organization’s needs. Different needs create unique selection criteria, which then weigh candidate backgrounds against a rubric of relatedness to the institution’s needs, not some universal criteria that one candidate is somehow better than all candidates on every qualifying dimension. Too often, one’s alma mater is a proxy — in the worse possible way — for a whole series of qualitative factors. No candidate is inherently ‘best.’ They are only ‘best’ in relation to a certain set of criteria. These criteria should be objective, job-related, and consistent with the mission, values, operating style, culture, and goals of the unit/organization selecting them.
I have argued — only half-jokingly — in workshops delivered to various colleges and universities over the past decade that the conception of ‘best’ is not a meritocracy but a ‘meriworkracy.’ That is, the ‘best’ is really the best person we know of within our own network (Merit+Network). Organizations that are smart enough to hire executive search consultants know this intuitively. Search firms extend institutions’ reach, have a far wider network, and go looking for talent in previously unknown places. When the philosophy of who is ‘best’ is those we have heard of, it makes a mockery of the idea of merit. The best and brightest aren’t all from schools in the Northeast or on the West Coast.
Some talent philosophies advantage those who are closest to the institution in literal and figurative ways. Alumni are valued over others. Knowing someone who works at the institution, relatives of key personnel, and those who are referred by someone who is known to us also receive favor. While these philosophies are not always overt, stated, or in policy, they still tip the scales of who is supposedly ‘best qualified’ in ways that are deleteriously prejudicial. Those from the same geographical region are almost always perceived to be a good fit. Many institutions have written policies that give internal candidates for staff positions preferential treatment. Faculty hiring is often shrouded in the illusion of meritocracy, yet spousal hires, cliques from particular institutions, and preferences for those most similar to us expose the often indefensible argument that the selection process is not a human process — naturally flawed by the emotions of human judgment, homophily, in-group/out-group dynamics, and simple political maneuvering by members of a search committee.
Other talent philosophies are discipline related. Those who prefer classic vs. neo-classic theories might assert their preferences when candidates are evaluated without a full regard for curricular needs. The long and short of it is that there are many philosophical points of view that press upon the selection process. Diversity is a worthy factor for consideration for countless, untold reasons. Unfortunately, diversity has been caught up in perceived cultural wars and is now viewed with skepticism. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue against Thomas Jefferson’s original notion of a ‘broad liberal education.’ In a Jeffersonian worldview, an education that does not include a wide array of topics, across culture, creed, religion, science, and subject matter is not a complete education at all. Therefore, we should seek out those who can bring these valuable perspectives and experiences to the classroom and hallways of our institutions.
Diversity is an overarching talent philosophy. It acknowledges that there is value, complementariness, synergism, creativity, richness, and positive outcomes associated with the ideas and principles it represents. It is, therefore, an imperative to use diversity as a governing philosophy when considering the talents, perspectives, experiences, and capabilities that candidates might bring to one’s institution. One’s philosophy guides one’s thinking, practice, and methods. If our way of thinking is outmoded, outdated, or narrow, then we will falsely assume that only scholars and practitioners of a particular hue, ilk, or geography are the best. In doing so, we blindly, and sometimes intentionally, reject the realities before us — that a broad liberal education requires variety and the diversity of experience, skill, and perspective that comes from different peoples.