Is meritocracy efficient?

James Kirkup’s recent piece on social mobility, ‘Too posh to fail’,  is an interesting contribution to the debate because it begins to grapple with the fact that intergenerational inequality is not just about people from advantaged backgrounds being better educated. It is also that they have the “soft skills, demeanour and habits that a privileged education gives you” – confidence, charm, awareness of elite cultural mores – a set of attributes distilled in the word ‘polish’.

Kirkup bases this claim on research by the Social Mobility Commission, which found that top law, accountancy and banking firms seek candidates with polish as much as grades. He might also have referred to Lauren Rivera’s ethnographic study of American professional services, which argues that fundamentally recruiters look to hire graduates that remind them of themselves, not just in terms of the colleges they attended, but also the way they carry themselves, the interests they have and the extracurricular activities they do. This is certainly consistent with my experience of working in strategy consulting.

Kirkup argues that such practices are an obstacle to a meritocratic society in which “where you end up is determined by your talent, character, effort and actions, not the family you happened to grow up in”.* His argument seems to be premised mainly on the unfairness of ‘dim’ rich children having better life prospects than clever poor children. But it is also common to argue for meritocracy on the grounds of efficiency – if we can get clever poor people into the positions currently occupied by dim rich people, we would expect them to do the jobs better. Low social mobility leads to a fear that there are thousands of ‘lost Einsteins’, people whose potential is wasted because they are blocked from the best roles in society.

Yet I wonder if the value that firms currently place on polish implies that greater social mobility might lead to inefficiency. Kirkup seems to imply that firms are currently behaving irrationally, and that we should be “challenging the value that is still attached to that polished debate-points style that has its apotheosis in a certain sort of Oxford PPE graduate”.**

This might be too hasty: I think polish has at least two benefits. First, I suspect it helps teams work better together. If almost everybody in an organisation communicates and behaves in a particular way (accent, directness, humour, cultural references) then it is likely to be difficult to integrate somebody who communicates and behaves completely differently. This might undermine trust, slow things down and cause misunderstandings. It is likely to be costly and effortful on both sides to bridge this social gap. The candidate without polish might be capable of making more useful contributions than the candidate with polish, but the difference between them has to be very big for it to be worth the extra costs of extracting those contributions. Of course, cultural homogeneity in an organisation risks leading to groupthink and excessively narrow outlook and expertise, but in some contexts at least, these drawbacks may be less than the costs of integrating outsiders.

Second, polish matters because presentation matters as well as content. Often, it is not enough just to have good ideas or to do your job well. You also have to ensure your ideas are heard or persuade others that you are doing well. A person with polish may be more authoritative, reassuring or comfortable with clients. That might be better for a firm than having somebody who is more capable in their core activities, but less able to communicate what they have done.

This shouldn’t be taken as a defence of the status quo. It is just to say that fairness and efficiency may not go together, at least in the short term. Kirkup recognises only ‘dream hoarders’ seeking to defend their unjust privileges as losers from a more meritocratic society. But firms, charities and public organisations may also bear some of the cost, and some may be less productive and effective as a result. Of course, these issues may be ironed out over time, as workplaces more to a more inclusive culture, and as the benefits of cognitive diversity bear fruit. It might be painful, though, for a time.

* There is much to be said about whether your talent, character, effort and actions can ever be separated from the family you grew up in, but let’s leave that to one side for now.

** Full disclosure: I am Oxford PPE graduate. I’m not sure how much polish I have, though. I would probably self-rate as ‘medium’ on the polish scale.

One comment

  1. Tom Cutterham · · Reply

    I think this is a helpful way of thinking about how firms and HR people work. What you might add is that the kinds of roles your thinking of are pretty much always advertised with “good communication skills” right at the top of the list of requirements, maybe with “teamwork” on there too: both of those things are coded as “skills” (i.e. talents?) in the language of the advert, but perhaps we should say that they are really measures of precisely the kind of “polish” you are talking about. In other words, someone who shares a habitus with the firm’s existing employees will communicate better with them, and work better with them in a team, than someone whose habitus is different.

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