The Rise of Anti-Merit: Objective Criteria Goes by the Wayside in Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at Chicago Companies

February 16, 2021
Alisa Rosenbaum

Executives are worried about the legality and business impacts of “woke” discrimination in hiring and promotion.

Based on interviews with private sector leaders across the manufacturing and professional services industries, The Chicago Contrarian senses a radical shift in hiring and promotion policies in Chicagoland companies. 2021 has thrown “merit to the periphery,” creating what one local executive describes as “the rise of woke nepotism” in hiring and promotion.

This is a dramatic shift. “Even before the advent of modern democracies, businesses have generally relied upon one primary metric to gauge performance and the worth of individual employees and job candidates: merit,” he observes. 

Granted, other factors also have historically played a key role in hiring and advancement. Economic cycles (i.e., growth vs. contraction), government policy/regulations (e.g., the elimination of the Keystone Pipeline will cost thousands of skilled workers their jobs), and interpersonal relationships also matter, no doubt. Yet despite these considerations, merit has been the single biggest factor that determines success for employers and employees alike in the past.

But times are changing.

Gaslighting merit. 

“In 2021, what we are seeing is really the opposite of merit-based hiring,” a senior research analyst observes. “This can put up insurmountable barriers to those which fall outside of a selected bucket.” She notes that “2021 practices place primary emphasis for evaluation on alternative factors to merit. It deemphasizes demonstrated capability, skills, track record and certifications when considering recruitment, promotion and contract awards.” 

This analyst adds: “No longer are larger professional organizations (banks, consultancies, law firms, etc.) taking affirmative action by ensuring a diverse candidate pool and having a ‘tie goes to the winner’ approach for diverse candidates. Rather, they have replaced this with a ‘woke’ model which actively discriminates against candidates who do not meet specific identity-oriented criteria.” She “finds it abhorrent” that companies can get away with behavior which is likely “illegal.” 

In other words: “Forget if you are a qualified first generation Polish or Ukrainian white male immigrant grew up on the Northwest side, whose parents did not go to college but worked in the skilled trades, or a downstate white male, whose parents held menial jobs and couldn’t pay for basic necessities. If you’re a white male, you don’t tick any of the boxes, even if you didn’t have the privilege of going to New Trier or Saint Ignatius.”

Diversity preferred. 

One technology consultant suggests that this model is best described as taking an “anti-merit” approach to hiring by putting secondary emphasis on “track record, certifications, capability, skills and academics (in the case of recent graduates).” In other words, “merit-based” criteria for hiring and promotion is taking a back seat to whether someone has a black, brown or female face (or ideally two of the three). 

A former mid-level manager at a Fortune 500 Illinois company shared the stealthy way in which this is happening in corporate America around Chicago. In this case, the firm offered early retirement to mid- and senior-level managers in multiple departments (editor’s note: “early retirement” is corporate speak for the removal of white men over the age of 55), with the effect of creating job openings that were filled almost entirely with diverse candidates. 

This person notes “that white males, especially, were actively discriminated against for promotion” and “not even considered” in certain cases, where a diverse candidate could be found. 

Is an anti-merit backlash brewing? 

One hiring manager in the professional services industry questioned the ultimate legality of woke hiring in terms of equal opportunity. “It’s reasonable to say that I’m going to recruit more at historical black colleges, but another to disqualify or nullify other candidates simply because they are not in that specific pool. This will clearly make its way into the courts, as an increasing number of more qualified candidates find themselves eliminated from opportunities because of their skin color, sex or sexual orientation.” 

A male partner at a large consulting firm in Chicago also expressed disgust at the hiring practices of his firm by saying, “It’s one thing to want to promote women to leadership positions but it’s quite a different scenario to actively not accept white male candidates for similar roles. We have prioritized diversity and inclusion over merit. Instead, we need to identify diverse candidates, mentor and grow them so that they are both ‘diverse and deserving,’ while preserving the ability of white men to grow and advance."

An executive in Chicago who runs a best practice industry working group told Chicago Contrarian that he had received complaints from long-standing prominent members of the group about the “automatic inclusion” of these new anti-merit hires into the cross industry working group. One of his members told him: “I’m not here to let other people soak up my industry knowledge if I’m not going to get anything in return.” As a result, the industry group decided to disband and reorganize with standing members. 

In other words, top-notch industry working groups do not want to spend their valuable time merely educating others when the point of the working group is to learn and share best practices and for each member to go back to their own company and take their learnings to help create their own competitive advantage. “When companies place unqualified candidates in roles and then expect them to share best practices and ideas with external peers who rose through the ranks based on merit, it becomes clear that the diversity and inclusion emperor has no clothes,” the group leader notes. 

Animal Farm meets Chicago business. 

Coerced and discriminatory hiring practices have roots in critical race theory as our colleagues have previously penned and as parents have shared with The Chicago Contrarian. But it is alienating even those who actively seek to promote a heterogeneous workplace, because diversity does not in fact require ignoring merit. 

“I think the hiring and promotion criteria at my Fortune 500 clients is going to ultimately be a drag on company performance,” says an executive in the professional services industry. She observes: “I am a strong supporter of diversity myself, but I would never eliminate a candidate if they were white and male unless I was secretly shorting the business I consult with — which maybe I should.” 

“This is a slippery slope,” she adds. “Adversity breeds resilience. I got to where I was by being stronger than the men I was competing against, sometimes even being described by some as a five-letter word, which I secretly wore as a badge of honor. But that does not matter anymore. Now it’s all about finding people who fit neatly on the identity wheel as victims. Merit, has well, little merit, in the new ‘woke’ corporate world.”

“It reminds me of Animal Farm,” she says. “Black, brown and female good. White and male: bad.”

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