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Italy’s Employment Minister Touched a Nerve – The Workplace Is Not a Meritocracy

I came across this article a week or two back and bookmarked it to go back to later. For the record, I do this often, it’s really part of being a good blogger.

Regardless, the basic idea of the article can be summed up in the first two paragraphs:

Giuliano Poletti, Italy’s employment minister, touched a nerve when he recently suggested that young people bin their CVs and play five-a-side football instead. His point was that formal job applications don’t mean that much in a society where unemployment is rife. Landing decent work is more dependent on who you know, being able to mingle with the “right people” – or through what is called a “raccomandazione”: a recommendation by a friend or relative.

The comment caused an uproar because it fundamentally rejects the idea of meritocracy; that the job you hold reflects your abilities and skill rather than who you know. Also, it once again places the blame of structural economic trends – rampant unemployment – on to the individual.

Now, for myself, and I suspect many folks in the US, the idea that the best way to find work is through the people you already know is not really so shocking. That’s kind of how this all has worked for generations. But, maybe we should be questioning that? After all, we also like to claim that the workplace and the marketplace are meritocracies, don’t we? Well, it can’t really be both. The employment market can’t be both based on merit and also who you know at the same time. If it’s truly based on merit, then employers would carefully vet the experience and qualifications of each application, call in the top “x” and then give each of those applicants the same interview process, until we got to the one person who we felt was most qualified to do the job.

That would truly be a meritocracy.

That is also not exactly what happens most of the time. If it was, we wouldn’t provide financial incentives for current employees to make referrals, or spend any amount of time taking into consideration how someone we already know might be a better “fit” for the team, over someone we don’t really know.

Of course, I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with leaning toward hiring people who are already connected to the people who work for you. What I am suggesting, though, is that we also stop calling our workplace a meritocracy. It’s not. It never has been, and the way we hire and promote will always be biased toward the people we already know. But, if we intend to make our hiring more diverse, we should also consider our own circles. Who do we know? How do we include people who are normally disadvantaged in this process under the “people we already know” category?

This is the way to a diverse workplace, admitting that it’s not just about merit, that it is mostly about who we know, and then making sure that we know the widest circle of people that we can. The next question is, how do we do that? It must be done on purpose. Those of us who already work in an industry and have been around for a while are unlikely to just run Into younger employees or people looking to get into the industry from non-traditional backgrounds. We are going to need to be mindful to include others in our circles. Hiring managers are going to have to likewise be mindful about who they know and be not just open to those people reaching out, but to make sure they have a way to reach out by meeting them where they are. That may be speaking at some non-traditional events, places like universities, or for organizations that specialize in making these kinds of connections, but also just being available on social media and other places where a diverse group of job seekers can get connected to you.

Mr. Poletti is right, the best thing you can do as a job seeker is be connected to people who can help you. But the Guardian article is also correct that simply leaving it up to that has been, and will be, a guaranteed way to leave too many qualified people behind. Somehow we are going to have to find a middle ground, a place where hiring involves a true meritocracy but allows access to the most diverse group of candidates that we can get. This will not happen by accident. It will only happen person by person and company by company.

Let’s normalize having a wide and diverse professional network.


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