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A Necessary Contradiction: Merit-Based Systems and Diversity

Merit-based systems have dominated the federal, state and local human resources landscape for decades with the purpose of creating a process of employee advancement and job-seeker selection that is based on individual skills and abilities. The current issue of PA Times includes a press release related to a report (.pdf) published in December of 2009 by the United States Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which succinctly stated that “progress has been made” since the implementation of these systems. For a government whose past hiring practices often included appointment and promotion on the basis of age, gender, ethnicity/race or political persuasion, progress in this area is imperative.

As reported by MSPB, some of the government’s largest improvements have been in the area of minority representation in federal positions. From the press release (.pdf): “The Federal workforce has become more diverse, in keeping with the Federal Government’s commitment to recruit and retain a workforce from all segments of American society.” While this laudable advancement is surely progress in terms of the government’s overall commitment to diversity, hiring or promoting an individual with any degree of regard for his or her race/ethnicity is in direct contradiction to merit-based decision making. Currently, however, the foundational principles of merit-based systems include both workforce diversity and hiring based solely on abilities, and correctly so. But such conflicting values must be considered and explored if further progress is to be made in human resources management.

The groundwork for merit-based systems was laid by the Pendleton Act of 1883, which created the Civil Service Commission and charged it with selecting federal employees based on their work skills and political neutrality. The Commission continued in this capacity until it was replaced in 1978 by the Civil Service Reform Act’s creation of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and MSPB. Title 5, section 2301 of United States Code, which guides OPM’s activities, is quite particular in its definition of “merit,” as suggested in the first principle of merit systems: “selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills” (italics added). Each of these aspects of merit are attainable through the individual actions of one who seeks career advancement, either by daily activities, education or time spent in a previous position. Also important to consider is what is noticeably absent from this discussion on merit: any mention of racial/ethnic, gender-based, religious, political or disability factors. In fact, the second merit system principle specifically prohibits the consideration of these dynamics in processes of decision making. Federal agencies must allow for their human resources representatives and departments to be freely and wholly committed to these principles if merit-based systems of selection and advancement are to thrive.

In the same title of U.S. Code that establishes “political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition” as forbidden human resources considerations, dedication to organizational diversity is delineated as an essential element of merit-system principles: “Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society. . .” (italics added). OPM and MSPB are correct to maintain a commitment to the principle of organizational diversity—a diverse workforce allows an agency’s policies to be more thoroughly planned, widely accessible and generally effective than they would otherwise be. In short, workplace diversity affords an organization its greatest chance to realize its objectives, whatever they may be. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, delivering the opinion of the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), penned the following regarding diversity in higher education: “Diversity . . . has the potential to enrich everyone’s education and thus make a law school class stronger than the sum of its parts.” While Justice O’Connor’s ruling applied specifically to a prominent school of law, the principle she explains is relevant perhaps universally, and certainly in human resources management.

The benefits of organizational diversity are significant and varied; however, the fact that an individual represents a section of society that is underrepresented in an organization must not be considered among that individual’s merits for career advancement. Diversity as a human resources management value is in stark opposition to merit-based systems as they are currently constructed; yet, both are considered essential elements to these systems. On its website, OPM expresses its continued commitment to this incongruous mission: “Federal employees are hired, promoted, paid, and discharged solely on the basis of . . . their ability to do their job. [OPM’s core values] provide special protections for . . . victims of discrimination.” While victims of discrimination are excellent candidates for special protections in any realm, human resources departments, including OPM, cannot be fully committed to a merit-based system while providing special protections to anyone based on circumstances beyond the individual’s ability to control.

Regardless of this conflict, OPM and MSPB strive to support both values in their entirety—and they must. Merit-based systems of selection and advancement are of utmost importance to the present and the future of human resources; paradoxically, a devotion to the principle of organizational diversity is equally so. The two values are mutually exclusive, but each is too valuable to be supplanted by the other. Perhaps the only action to prescribe is continued and parallel commitment to both principles. If that is the case, at least an understanding of this dilemma will certainly be of great assistance to human resources managers in their efforts to accomplish agency objectives.

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