‘We hire and promote based on merit.”
We’ve been hearing this for over a decade now, and it’s a recurring theme in current policy debates. In fact, it’s a statement I used to believe. Who wouldn’t want to? The notion that companies are structured to reward the most talented and determined individuals is pervasive in this country.
Irrespective of who you are and where you come from, at one point or the other, in your adult life and the errands of the fast-moving ‘woke and hustle’ culture, you must have, more often than not, found yourself smack dab in the middle of the classic battle of merit and equity. It’s a debacle that has confused candidates and employees alike, for the longest period. More so, ever since the incorporation of contemporary issues like diversity and inclusion in the mainstream, the limelight on this debate has become even brighter.
If you’ve ever felt embarrassed about pronouncing the name of a dish on a menu card wrong, or felt out of place in a conversation about which is better – Titlis or Fuji, or upset about not getting that job because this fresh employee of theirs got quality education in a metropolitan city then my friends, you’ve all low key been the epicentre of this loggerheads between merit and equity.
One of the most obvious explanations to this, that people like me use to save ourselves from the impending burden of being labelled a “cow,” “poor,” “stupid,” “naïve,” or simply “dumb,” is that, “Okay, I come from a place where we didn’t have this sort of exposure.” Even though this statement is a mere facade for a deep-rooted set of issues, some more obvious than the others, this “exposure” in and of itself is a magnanimous factor in the above-mentioned battle and one way or the other, all of us have been a part of this real-life mockery.
The point is, contrary to popular beliefs, lives in smaller cities aren’t as slow-moving and simplistic as a Bollywood movie would like you to believe. The basic facilities of a big city also exist in these small towns. However, there is a certain flair about metropolitans which is still out of bounds for a smaller city. It is because of this that those who hail from these towns often find themselves in this unending race of ‘catching up.’ While the Avocados are trying to better themselves from their current state to the next step forward, the Mangoes are still in the run-up to be that one ripe avo.
One of the most painstaking net results of this elitist fruit divide is access to opportunities. Even when the Mangoes and Avocadoes are brought on the same pedestal by several external efforts, the kind of gateways that Avocadoes have is still more enriched than the Mangoes. The fact that stock market indices are easily understandable to you because you once passed by the NSE building and your mom just casually started explaining about it one day, or that you’ve taken a professional course on Product Marketing because your dad’s friend in San Francisco owns a marketing firm there, are qualitative benefits that Avocadoes won’t even understand in the vaguest of their dreams to be privileges. But, Mangoes know the innate value of these ‘simple favours’ because ever since they were little, favours for them were only of the kind where you were, by default, eternally grateful for whatever thing someone did for them even, if that meant someone getting you a kilo of oranges on your neighbours’ trip to Nagpur and not an iPhone from the States.
In GDs, interviews, meetings and conferences, we know what it is to feel like you don’t belong. But with merit and opportunity, there is more than what meets the eye. The inherent value of an individual may not always be derived from certain palpable factors, but there are so many traits that set them apart as well. The grit, the dedication and the drive that they can show might be four times what the avocadoes are willing to do. Respecting and valuing the opportunity are the two things that create the real difference. All these factors are what corporates look for in their employees. However, their metrics become so blurry when you look at their chosen candidates after a long and hard selection procedure. It somehow becomes obvious that they look for a Buy One-Get One, in terms of selecting the best candidate from diverse backgrounds. And here’s where the problem worsens. Imagine having a whisky on the rocks, that’s what the initial horizontal tussle of merit is, now add a touch of bourbon to the mix, your diversity, and you have yourself a deadly drink. In the layering of two of the seemingly exclusive traits, you create a merit battle not just outside of their demographic but also within our demographic. It’s akin to saying that Catholics don’t get along with Mormons, but Christians don’t get along with Muslims too.
But in the end, who are we to even talk about “merit?” What do we even know of merit? Given, even the world’s best dictionaries define it as “something deserving or worthy of positive recognition or reward.” Imagine asking your colleague under your breath, “Why did Benjamin get the Project?” and your colleague says, “Something!” would seem quite awkward, right? So, the world just whipped up a fancy term and stuck it to several rulebooks and eligibility clauses and here we find ourselves at this crossroads.
On one hand, we feel that it’s nerve-wracking to realise that your future in the corporate ladder, your position in the business spectrum and your tendency on the growth scale are all dependent on a metric that even Oxford defines vaguely as “quality of being good.”
But on the other hand, it is quite comforting to know that there is a set of virtues or avenues which are quite palpable even by common human intuition, if not higher education, that you can explore to climb up to the top ranks.
It’s very hard to draw clear lines between what is better. Honestly, there are times when it’s such a blessing to know that there is an external factor that can give you that magic jump to being like an Avocado, but what hits hardest is that irrespective of where you’ve come from and what you’ve achieved, the dreams you see with your big, brown, beautifully hopeful eyes, is the same that this blue-eyed, silver-spoon-in-his-mouth-yet-wanting-to-prove-his-worth Avocado also sees. But the path for him is a little easier to accomplish than for you because the race he ran until now has been on a plateau and what you ran, was an uphill race. To reach the same mountain top that Sisyphus can only dream of reaching, would take one much more blood, sweat and tears than that metropolitan counterpart.
We don’t necessarily say that they get things easy, we just say that they get things relatively easier. But then again, all of our opinions come from our perspectives and generalizing them would be nothing short of a sin. For most of us, a simple answer to this battle would be the middle ground of “both.” However, the question here is, is this a battle of ‘Meritocracy vs Diversity’, ‘Metropolitans vs Small towners’ or the ‘Dreamers vs Do-ers’? Well, we’d never know. But while we pave that path, and delve deep to form this utopian world of ours, just imagine that if these two roads were, in fact, diverging in a yellow wood, and you were to choose one, which path would you choose, moreover, which is the one less travelled by?
By Heet Tike and Eshita Bhat
2nd year undergraduate students, Shri Ram College of Commerce