The Danger of Mirrortocracy in Silicon Valley and Beyond

by Helen Whelan

“We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.” Carlos Bueno, programmer

Carlos Bueno wrote  “The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt bigtime: its own culture , which takes aim at the hiring practices of Silicon Valley firms.  Ironically, these firms claim to have a talent shortage. The caveat should be a talent shortage of white young men, followed by young Asian men. Bueno says often these folks don’t even realize they’re hiring based on a bias. Instead, they actually think they’re being smart and objective.

Take Google. It recently announced the makeup of its workforce. The numbers tell it all. Google says it’s being transparent. That’s great but what do these companies do to create a workforce that mirrors their customers? That mines the brains and hearts of women, minorities, of all different ages?

GoogleWorkforce

This isn’t new. It’s just more stark with Silicon Valley companies because they’re in the limelight and they claim to be objective data decision-makers. If we’re not careful, we all can be accused of hiring people just like ourselves. This goes all the way up the food chain to the executive suite and who we listen to and bring into our confidence.  Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith calls it “Avoiding favoritism” and how powerful people can surround themselves with “Yes Wo/men”.  Most people will deny they’re doing this but Goldsmith provides a great way to  test yourself on whether you’re doing it. 

We’re all busy. We have to figure out ways to save time. But, Bueno astutely points out the blind spots otherwise intelligent people are using as they interview people for “culture fit”.  Ruling out a candidate because he decides to wear a suit to an interview. (Ever heard of “dress up” for an interview? ) Or, expecting candidates to spontaneously go out for drinks and dinner. (What about people who have kids or are caring for an elderly parent?) The talent pool starts to shrink and the candidates start looking like clones.  Bueno adds the ultimately irony:

“It’s astonishing how many of the people conducting interviews and passing judgement on the careers of candidates have had no training at all on how to do it well. Aside from their own interviews, they may not have ever seen one. I’m all for learning on your own, but at least when you write a program wrong, it breaks. Without a natural feedback loop, interviewing mostly runs on myth and survivor bias. ‘Empirically,’ people who wear suits don’t do well; therefore anyone in a suit is judged before they open their mouths. ‘On my interview I remember we did thus and so, therefore I will always do thus and so. I’m awesome and I know X; therefore anyone who doesn’t know X is an idiot.’

This isn’t just about doing the right thing. It’s about innovation and gaining new perspective. If everyone around you is the same, there’s not a lot of room for new ideas. What innovations aren’t being created because of clone-like hiring practices? Bueno aptly compares this to “putting a spam filter” on who can contact you through email. You would only get information from your friends and not suspect you’re missing a thing.

So, what are we to do? Bueno says the first step is to write down your company’s unwritten rules about what types of employees didn’t work out. Just becoming aware of bias can help. Then, aim for what you want as an organization. It might take a little extra work, but the benefit to innovation is huge.

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