Comfort or merit?

A month ago I wrote about the dilemma of properly filling out the 'Race' field of various forms now that the concept of race has been scientifically laid to rest. Readers of this column suggested two useful alternatives: 'Human' and '440m relay.'

ManagementSpeak: You've brought up an excellent point.

Translation: You've brought something embarrassing up, but luckily I've got a glib answer.

-- IS Survivalist Christian De Meco makes an excellent point.

A month ago I wrote about the dilemma of properly filling out the "Race" field of various forms now that the concept of race has been scientifically laid to rest. Readers of this column suggested two useful alternatives: "Human" and "440m relay."

As you might imagine, a column on race in IT provoked more commentary than just that. So:

No, I didn't say hair, eye and skin colour aren't heritable. I said they don't follow one another around in the population. Race is only meaningful if different heritable traits are linked.

Why did I except affirmative action from my overall position that race is irrelevant? That race is a demonstrably useless concept bears on how you hire and promote employees.

Affirmative action -- an attempt to provide remediation for institutionalised disadvantages, not to confer arbitrary, unfair advantage, by the way -- is a matter of public policy. That puts it beyond the scope of this column. To clarify: In my role as an InfoWorld (US) columnist, I'm neither endorsing nor rejecting affirmative action.

A few readers raised a fascinating point: whereas they work hard to avoid racial and ethnic bigotry, they feel quite comfortable with cultural bias. Me, too. Some cultures I can't co-exist with at all. And even among the wide variety of cultures most of us find completely benign, different ones promote wildly different values. Ethnicities whose cultures extol academic achievement, hard work and creative problem solving, for example, will almost always end up with more collective sustainable wealth than others that don't, even in the complete absence of bigotry, making the public-policy issues enormously complicated. The impact on how you hire and promote is, however, minimal: except as adjusted by your employer's affirmative action policy, base both decisions purely on merit.

At the staff level, IT is pretty diverse. IT management is less heterogeneous. Racism at work? Several readers of varying ethnicities suggested a more subtle mechanism. Executives and managers frequently have proteges -- individuals they consider especially promising and whose career paths they metaphorically pave.

Being more comfortable with someone in my-group than someone in not-my-group isn't racism. It's human nature, and my-group isn't something most people define consciously. So here's my challenge: first, figure out if you have a protege -- you might without even realising it. If you do, ask yourself this perhaps uncomfortable question: Is he or she the most promising individual in your team, or merely the one you're most comfortable with?

Send any comments to Lewis, who heads IS Survivor Training, which organises leading high-performance IT. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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