In the workplace we are all equal. Right. Sure.

Does equality matter to the brightest talents? Do competitive go-getters care whom they beat in the race to the top?

Joanna Sinclair, 31.10.2012


A company offering equal opportunity and a fast track for high potentials may sound like an oxymoron. Some may argue that having both is a myth, or claim it is a taboo to question whether equality and nurturing high potentials are complementary.

Some People Are More Equal Than Others

Writing about taboos can make for politically incorrect headings. What is your reaction to the above heading? Can you say something like that in print?

Wake up and smell transparent communication in the era of social media. Not only can you say something shocking, you should. Taboos suffocate progress.

“There are many taboos regarding talent fast tracks. I would like to point out one very clear to us here at Aalto,” says Professor and Vice Dean Rebecca Piekkari from Aalto University.

“Our students are a carefully selected group. They are highly motivated and extremely well educated upon graduation. Yet when they start sending out their CV’s, many students of Russian origin have an exceedingly difficult time landing their first job. It is a disgrace,” Piekkari says.

Many consider Finland to be the poster boy for equality. Surely Finns do not discriminate against Russians? Piekkari must be mistaken. End of story.

The Myth of Self-organizing Diversity

Understanding organizational myths and taboos is never easy. It proves a slippery slope to tackle as few taboos are openly debated.

McGill University’s Lisa Cohen is known for her research on how jobs and work are structured in organizations. According to Cohen, one of the clearest taboos regarding talent, fast tracks and equality, is equal compensation and opportunity for equal merit.

“I do not believe that talent fast tracks are the way to go – it sends a rather demotivating message to the 95 percent of employees left out. If an organization is determined to take this route, it should be meticulous in the manner that it makes decisions about who qualifies as high potential talent.”

“We operate day to day in a maze of myths. We assume that the world of work is a true meritocracy and expect that the organization of that work is dictated by what is economically efficient. This is hardly the case.”

Cohen cites research a colleague conducted a few years ago. When looking into reward systems in a large organization, he found that managers gave women and men unequal cash bonuses for the same talent assessment results.

“It was a significant, if not striking difference. On average nine thousand dollars went to the women who received top scores and ten thousand to the men who received the assessment.”

“When looking at these findings, it is important to question why something happens. In this case – as is often the case – the unequal treatment was by no means deliberate. Managers were surprised when they were presented statistics on their own decisions,” says Cohen.

Cohen has many other similar examples, all pointing to a myth of inherent fairness. For some reason many organizations assume that people will naturally act fairly, even if they are not shown how to do so, or held accountable for their actions.

“Research suggests that making sure employees know they will be held accountable for discrimination generally has a more positive effect on equality than diversity programs. There is one clear solution for organizations looking to improve their equality: accountability, accountability and accountability,” Cohen asserts.  

Managers Prefer Hiring Mini-mes

Individual talents are often best managed from a slight distance; champions rarely appreciate someone hovering over them. Yet when it comes to managing diversity, it seems that close, hands-on leadership is a necessity.

“The benefits of diversity follow a U-shaped curve. As the organization becomes more diverse, efficiency, innovation and results are the first to go up. Without leadership, the benefit curve will start to go down after a while. One should never assume that organizational diversity is an issue that will self-organize,” Piekkari explains.

The fact that people need guidance and help in getting along with other cultures, personality types and generations is both a well-acknowledged fact and a completely ignored point, even a taboo. We may hate to admit it, but we are not naturally inclined to work together with people who are different from ourselves. It is a challenge and a skill that we need to learn.

Piekkari points out that without guidance, many managers tend to hire individuals that remind them of themselves. It is not something people necessarily do purposefully or even realize, but it is an established and well-researched fact that hinders organizational development.

Going from the Unthinkable to the Inevitable

Organizational myths and taboos evolve. A much-quoted hypothesis of Laura Liswood, Secretary General of Women World Leaders, explains the stages of change.

“Change is a funny thing. It goes from the unthinkable, to the impossible, to the inevitable. You just have to make your way through that.”

Liswood’s notion takes us from taboo [unthinkable] to myth [impossible] and finally to a new reality.

What kind of changes should we expect when it comes to talent fast tracks? They seem to be here to stay. In their article, “Are You a High Potential,” (HBR 2010), Ready, Conger and Hill looked at a small but exemplary sample of 45 companies. Their study revealed that 98% had a high potential list. Some lists were openly acknowledged, others were kept secret. Yet there was a list in 44 companies out of 45.

Businesses are entitled to list high potentials. However, to ensure they are optimizing these lists, they should not talent pick from a pool distorted by prejudice.

Equal opportunity is easy to assess. Simply compare the fast track talents to the firm’s general demographics and if possible, the background information of everyone who has applied for a position. Is there a disparity? If not, you are not wasting talent and sacrificing efficiency because of myths or taboos.

PROFILE MAGAZINE 3/2012 page 9

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