The Diversity Hire Dilemma: How To Get Paid Based On Identity, Not Merit

Now that the Supreme Court has outlawed affirmative action in college admissions, it's time to look at the next layer of affirmative action: getting a job based on identity versus merit. This is the diversity hire dilemma some of you or your children might one day face.

At the end of the day, the whole point of getting into the best college possible is to get the best job possible. Sure, some might argue the purpose of college is also to gain status, grow a powerful network, and find a spouse with similar goals. That works too.

However, all roads lead to being able to make enough money to live a good life. Isn't it fascinating how almost everything is personal finance related?

Personally, I wouldn't want to be a diversity hire because that would be insulting if I found out. I'd rather be hired based on my skills and achievements.

But as a parent, maybe I wouldn't mind if my kids were diversity hires so long as they didn't find out. Ah hah! What a contradiction!

The goals of this post are:

  • To explore where each of us draws the line between getting ahead based on identity or merit
  • To question whether our actions are consistent with our thoughts or whether we are just virtue signaling
  • To recognize not everybody has the same opportunities and to have a discussion on how to make things more equitable
  • To understand how far parents are willing to go to give their children a leg up in society
  • To provide a big picture framework on how to take advantage of what society wants
  • To help do away with the negative stereotype that all underrepresented people are diversity hires

The Diversity Hire Debate

During a parent outing one day the topic of being a diversity hire came up. The question was whether you would be OK being hired based on your identity versus your performance and skills.

Everybody responded they'd rather be hired based on their merits. After all, we can't control how we were born. We'd rather be hired based on what we can do and have our efforts recognized. To be hired to help fill some quota would feel icky.

At the same time, due to structural inequities and economic disadvantages, many people simply don't have the same opportunities. Therefore, we should actively seek to give these people a chance. Otherwise, the rich and privileged simply get richer and more privileged.

One parent chimed in that if they were a diversity hire, they'd fear their colleagues might discredit their skills. The same thing goes for their kid getting into college, despite being well-qualified.

The parent would hate to have an aura of suspicion from other parents and students thinking her kid got in based on her identity or legacy status versus her kid's achievements.

Transparency In Grades, Test Scores, Salaries

She argued the easiest way to eradicate the suspicion of people getting into college based on identity is to publish every student's grades, SAT scores, and extracurricular achievements for everyone to see. This way, students who feel scrutinized can prove they deserve to be there just like anybody else.

With full transparency, the admissions office is also held accountable to following a meritocratic process. Parents, students, and outsiders can judge for themselves how much of a student's admission was due to identity or achievement.

The parent also argued the same transparency can be taken a step further with job salaries, consulting rates, book advances, speaking fees, and more. If we publish what everybody makes and the revenue they bring in, pay anomalies can be rectified.

With full money transparency, those who are getting underpaid can gain more ground. However, those who are getting paid far above average may object.

Example Of Transparency

Stanley Zhong earned a 3.97 unweighted and 4.42 weighted GPA, scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT's and founding his own e-signing startup RabbitSign in sophomore year and was rejected by 16 out of the 18 colleges he applied to. Tough!

On the other hand, oftentimes when the media profiles students who get into all the top universities they apply to, they don't reveal the student's grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities.

But to avoid the students facing suspicions about whether they are diversity admits, the media should reveal the details and let the public decide. Unless, thereason why the media isn’t transparent is because their credentials are below average.

When I see a normal Asian kid was such high academic achievement get rejected by the majority of the colleges he applied to, I get more motivated to provide career insurance for my kids. I plan to invest in rental properties and operate Financial Samurai for 20 more years just in case my kids can't get into a good college and find decent-paying jobs.

Diversity hire dilemma - Stanley Zhong, high school student with 4.42 GPA and 1,590 SAT got rejected from 16 colleges out of 18

Pride Says I Don't Want My Kids To Be Diversity Hires

I'm worried about my kids getting their first good jobs. Therefore, maybe I'm OK with them being diversity hires. As someone currently looking for a job after years of retirement, I understand firsthand how difficult landing one can be today. I shudder when thinking about what competition may be like 20 years from now.

I just want some organization to give my kids a chance to compete. Once they're in, it's up to them to flourish.

However, I don't want my kids to be hired or advanced due to their identity. This may be pride talking, but it is also to protect them from feeling like frauds if they one day realized they hadn’t made it on their own.

If they found out a big reason why they were hired was due to their identity or connections, I fear it would hurt their self-confidence. Maybe they would feel grateful for getting an undeserved opportunity. At the same time, however, maybe they'd feel guilty for taking a spot from a more deserving individual.

It is also possible they could convince themselves they weren't diversity hires. Or they might not care one bit given they're getting ahead. The mind has a fantastic ability to trick us into believing anything.

Don't Be So Naive About The Way The World Works

Although I'm assuming most of us don't want to be rewarded based on our identity or connections, that's simply not the way society works.

Even in a capitalistic society, where meritocracy supposedly reigns supreme, people are always trying to find ways to get ahead beyond plain old hard work.

I'll give you a perfect little example below. Although it sounds nice to want a level playing field, it is never going to happen. It is only rational to use your money and network to get ahead.

Are you willing to get into college, get jobs, and get paid more based on Identity versus Skills?

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Learning How To Ride A Bike

On October 1, 2022, I made a promise to teach my then 5.5-year-old son how to ride a bike by the new year. If necessary, I would take him to an open space every Saturday for 13 weeks in a row.

It didn't matter how much my back would kill me from hunching over while pushing and holding him from behind. I would help him learn how to ride a bike, gosh darn it!

One day, I arranged a playdate to have some kids learn how to ride bikes together. It turned out all of the other boys already knew how to ride bike. As the boys were riding around the blacktop, my boy was just chasing after them on foot.

Yikes, I felt bad he was behind. Learning how to ride a bike simply hadn't been a priority for us until then.

Private Lessons Route Instead

It turns out all of the parents had hired a bike teacher to teach their kids. The parents spent between $100 – $250 to teach their boys how to ride and save their backs at the same time.

One of the mothers sheepishly asked if I wanted the bike teacher's contact information. I stubbornly said no. I told her, “I'm determined to teach my boy how to ride a bike by the end of the year. And only if I fail will I reach out.”

My pride was talking.

I didn't want to make the parents feel bad for hiring a bike teacher. So I tried to joke, “If my boy learns how to ride a bike from me, then he can never say I didn't do anything for him in the future!”

A couple of moms laughed.

Don't Be Stubborn, Utilize Your Resources

What I realize now is that my stubborn pride held back my son from learning how to ride a bike as fast as others.

By not learning how to ride a bike more quickly, he missed out on bike riding playdates. That stinks to be excluded. Maybe I should have hired a bike coach. I could afford it.

Will my son feel bad that I paid someone to teach him? I doubt it. Instead, he'd probably feel happy to learn how to ride a bike sooner and ride around with his friends!

Didn't Give In To Peer Pressure

Too bad I'm selfish.

I didn't want to miss out on the magical moment where he thinks I'm still pushing him from behind, but I've already let go.

Some believe families should wait until all families can afford to pay a bike teacher $100 before paying for one themselves. This way, all kids will compete on a level playing field. But we all know this will never happen.

Families will use whatever resources they have to give their children a leg up. Hence, from a competitive standpoint, it's probably best if I stop being so stubborn.

Take Advantage Of The System As A Diversity Hire

Most people will say they don't want to be a diversity hire. But I bet most people will happily accept outsized pay for their identity. If companies want to overpay for diversity, then let them!

For example, let's say the average salary for your job is $100,000. But because a company is looking for more people who look like you, they are willing to pay you $200,000!

Are you really going to turn down a much higher salary even though you aren't getting paid based on merit? Probably not. Most people will rationally take the money, whether they think they deserve it or not.

As a financial freedom seeker, one of your goals is to try and earn as much money as possible, by whatever legal means necessary. If the system wants to reward you based on your identity instead of on merit, then it is up to you to take advantage!

As A Diversity Hire, Seek To Join Large Organizations

The best way to take advantage of the system is to be a diversity hire at a large organization.

Large organizations have more resources, larger balance sheets, and greater profitability. Large organizations are also much less efficient. Hello meetings upon meetings! Therefore, they are more willing to pay diversity hires far above average to meet diversity objectives.

If you are a diversity hire in a large organization, you are more easily able to camp out or quiet quit. You won't be as heavily scrutinized for not performing up to your pay. You could be well qualified, but you don’t have to be.

Think about the character Big Head posing as a professor in the TV show, Silicon Valley. He just kicked back in his office and made big bucks!

As A Diversity Hire, Do Not Join Small Organizations

The smaller the organization you join, the more responsibility you will have. Think being a startup employee who has to juggle multiple roles at a time. If you work at a small organization, it is much harder to hide poor performance.

If your performance does not meet standards, after a while, your colleagues will start resenting you. More importantly, business will suffer. During bad times, the people without the best skills tend to get laid off first.

Also be careful about becoming a solopreneur. As a solopreneur, there is absolutely nowhere to hide. Stuff only happens if you make it happen. You can't rely on your firm's reputation or huge marketing budget to do your job for you. You can only depend on your own ingenuity and hustle.

The same thing goes for being a professional investor. You're either outperforming and making money or you're underperforming and losing money. The stocks, real estate, and other risk assets don't care what you look like!

I Was Probably A Diversity Hire And It Created Self-Doubt

When I joined Goldman Sachs in 1999, I knew I was a nobody. The only reason why clients picked up the phone was because I was calling from Goldman Sachs.

I probably was a diversity hire given there weren't many Asian people in the equities department. I also interviewed at a career fair in Washington D.C. where most of the students were minorities.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to join CICC, a nascent Chinese investment bank that had recently set up shop in New York City. Even though I had 11 years of experience, part of the reason why I didn't take the attractive pay package was my fear of underperforming. If I had been more confident in my abilities, I probably would have returned to New York City for more money.

In the back of my head, I always had some self-doubt about my abilities. Just the thought I could have been a diversity hire undermined my confidence. The only way I could find out whether I could earn on my own was to take a leap of faith in 2012 and do my own thing!

The negative of being aware you may be a diversity hire is potential impostor syndrome. As a result, you might be afraid to try new things.

Make More Money By Being Rational, Not Delusional

If you believe everything is rational long term, like I do, then you might as well rationally take advantage of the system. If you don't, someone else will. Having honor and pride may only throttle your full potential.

If companies want to overpay someone to create more diversity, take advantage. Nobody is forcing the company to do anything. The company is acting rationally because it believes diversity will attract more talent, create a better work atmosphere, and ultimately boost business. You can use the extra money to get one step closer to financial freedom.

The key is to be aware that you could be a diversity hire. While you're earning more than others, do your best to improve your skills and stay humble. Think of your diversity hire role as an incubation period for you to catch up to non-diversity hires with greater skills.

If colleges want to set different admissions criteria for different identities, take advantage. Once you get in, gain all the spoils of a prestigious degree.

You don't have to prove to anybody your academic achievements are worthy because your school achievements are private. In fact, you might become more coveted by employers and make more money once you graduate.

The only benefit of going the 100% meritocratic route is the feeling of self-satisfaction. Unfortunately, self-satisfaction can't pay the bills!

Life isn't fair. You're either going to complain or you're going to do something about the situation.

Reader Questions and Suggestions

If you knew you could make a lot more than average for being a diversity hire, would you accept the role? What's the best way to take advantage of your identity to earn maximum money? Are you OK with your children being diversity hires?

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27 thoughts on “The Diversity Hire Dilemma: How To Get Paid Based On Identity, Not Merit”

  1. This is a tough topic. Please read this because still your children will not be protected by just their merit/skills/education.

    I honestly have never listed the organizations where I did volunteer in Toronto on race relations and immigration matters. This includes a major national organization of Chinese-CAnadians on advocacy for equity, etc. and a literary magazine on Asian-Canadian social issues, the arts and media. That was over 8 yrs. of volunteer work of gained valuable skills (in addition to some fun, etc.) while I did hold down paid jobs during day. For sure, like probably many people, I did do whiten my resume/ make it palatable that I was a go-getter, strategic, did change management….but in a way that wasn’t to “rock the boat”. It’s a double edged sword not to point to anything that is racial/ethnic specific in a resume, yet if the person gained skills for a job.. increased ability how deal with conflict…

    So instead I listed cycling (the new “golf” for business networking. Seriously. Get your kids cycling.) since genuinely I’ve been doing it for last 30 years and being car-free and cycling organizations where I volunteered.

    Was intrigued by parents paying a bike teacher… ok. I’ve never heard of that. Sometimes a major cycling organization hosts bike camp day for kids, etc.

  2. I don’t want to be considered a diversity hire. But I definitely wouldn’t mind getting paid a lot more to fulfill our diversity quota. I know one black, female author, who got a massive book advance, five times greater than a non-black person with her similar size platform. We’re talking $450,000 versus $50,000 just for being a black female.

    Got to love it! Take a vantage of the system while you can, especially companies that are very woke. If you can get their money before they go broke that is huge.

  3. Sam my Man! What is the dealio?!

    What’s up with all the diversity bashing lately? Have you given up your dreams of retiring in Hawaii and have decided to relocate to Alabama?
    But, I digress. I really wanted to answer your question with a question and give you two pieces of advice. First, my question: According to the 2020 Federal Reserve data, the median net worth of Americans by race is as follows:
    Whites – $188,200.00
    Asians – $138,200.00
    Hispanic – $36,200.00
    Black – $24,100.00

    So, here’s my question – If diversity hiring is causing the majority to lose, then who the heck is winning???
    Secondly, over the years you have given us all a lot of great financial advice, and I for one greatly appreciate it. So I think that, as a long-term reader of your blog, I should be able to give you two pieces of advice.

    #1. Stop kicking people who are already down. There’s no honor in that.
    #2. Stick to your strengths and get back to telling us if we should Buy, Hold, or Sell NVDIA.

    Now to answer your question. If I were in a country that put laws into place that purposely put me in a situation where everyone else was worth 6-8 times more than me, and then they changed the laws in order to give me a chance to catch up after being INTENTIONALLY held back, then Yes. Yes, I would take advantage of my identity; because for far too long, my identity was a disadvantage.

    Diversity hire does NOT mean you are not qualified to do the job.

    Mamba out.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I didn’t realize I was diversity bashing or kicking people who are already down.

      Can you point out where I do? This will help me write better articles, especially for people who are more sensitive. I’d like to have a discussion about an important societal topic.

      “ If diversity hiring is causing the majority to lose” who is making this argument? I would like to read research about this.

      What is your background and how are you thinking about opportunities for your children, if you have any? I think you said you’re black.

      We’re all trying to figure our way in this world. And as I mentioned in this post, I’m probably a diversity hire who was given a chance.

      1. Alvin’s comment shows the harm affirmative action has created for Black people. He feels he needs to stand up for himself, and feels attacked even though your post was completely balanced.

        It must feel bad to always feel like you are an imposter due to policies that favor, one race over another.

  4. Buddhist Slacker

    I never worried or would never worry about being a diversity hire, because everywhere I have worked, after initially being intimidated, I look around and see that no one works harder than me, and aside from the geniuses, who I always love to learn from, we all perform about the same and my output is as good as everyone else’s or better. I also endeavor to treat everyone with courtesy and respect and celebrate everyone else’s accomplishments. There’s never any reason for me to feel like a fraud and I never have and I never will. I also learned how to ride a bike by myself. I did get some pointers from other kids which didn’t really help lol. I just had to figure it out and do it.

  5. Don’t keep working anywhere that you find yourself to be a second-class citizen.

    Now, affirmative action was a noble concept at all that, but why would I want to work at a place that saw less able people being promoted past me as fair? That’s not what diversity is about. And it’s not reverse discrimination, either. It’s just plain old discrimination and it was against me. Whenever I encountered it I made immediate plans to move on. This happened to me twice more, after the first time, where it completely blindsided me. Growing up on US military bases never gave me any reason to believe that skin color meant anything to anyone.

    Never mind that I am a white male. I was born to a household where a folding card table had to serve as our dinner table until I was in high school. Some privilege. Through my own efforts I am well-educated, diligent, and a hard worker with vast experience in many areas. Oh, and I have an IQ over 150, without being stove piped. I also work well with people or alone.

    If they drove me out with their ridiculous glass ceilings, it was their loss. I was always quickly reemployed and with better compensation. Even now it is a rare month where I don’t have a couple of dozen headhunters sniffing, even though I haven’t posted a resume in over a decade.

    My grandchildren are half-Asian and what do I intend to tell them? For starters, this: “I don’t think you will ever find discrimination of any variety that works in your favor, so don’t accept it. Move on. Don’t try to stay and pretend that it will have no effect on you or your career. It will. Even if it is subtle and hard to notice. Don’t knock your head against a wall. You will find good alternatives. Ones where you will be valued for who you are and what you can do, not what you are.”

  6. I think diversity in an organization is important in and of itself. Why would you want to limit the pool of perspectives by only hiring rich, white boys from certain colleges in your organization? The world is a diverse place and if your workforce doesn’t reflect demographics there is a good chance your organization will lose out to competitors. If you reframe the question by viewing diversity as an important goal, then maybe diverse candidates will feel less bad about their jobs. If anything, I’ve noticed that many people who view themselves as diversity hires go above and beyond in performance and risk burnout at greater rates because they suffer from imposter syndrome, which is unfortunate.

    1. It’s actually more than that. It’s hiring diversity candidates, and paying them much more than other candidates because of their race or whatever minority status. For example, publishers will pay 1 to 2 times more for an author, who is a black female with the same qualities or even a smaller platform, as an author of another race.

      The reason why is that the publishers need diverse authors, when they face the backlash that they have not signed on minority authors. For decades.

  7. If you are not a diversity hire, you just have to embrace your privilege, or if you are the wrong minority according to liberal colleges and companies, then you simply have to work harder or start your own business.

    I’m fine things are harder for me bc it forced me to start my own business and create generational wealth.

    If I didn’t, I would be a miserable wage slave doing something I didn’t enjoy with my only life.

  8. No one knows anyone’s skill level and abilities during interviews. Sometimes we have people take tests or complete tasks to demonstrate the skills, knowledge, etc. but its usually simple. You really only learn over several months if your hire is capable of completing the job. So, I’m not so keen on this hire by merit nonsense. I personally think its all psychological in that you want to hire someone who mimics how you see the position being performed. In this day and age I doubt most organizations hire looking for X ethnicity or gender. Its nice to get a more diverse working space but at the end of the day I usually try to hire who has the best attitude, some humility, confidence, and good references regardless of background. If someone wanted to hire me for ethnicity/gender reasons, I wouldn’t care and just try to develop and prove them right for choosing me for the job.

  9. Your most ambitious post yet that I’ve read. Nice job, especially communicating your emotional vulnerability fo wanting your son to know he learned how to ride from you. Bike riding teachers are unheard of in the South Bay but we have neighborhoods conducive to dad teaching the kid how to ride so I get it in SF as you lack the space of suburbia.

    One of my proudest moments as a dad was my son rejecting snowboard lessons for me to teach him despite how little patience (translated: yelling like a football coach) I’ve always shown with him when teaching athletic skills like throwing a baseball/football, golf, tennis (move your feet!), standing up on a surfboard. I started mellowing out through that day, warm in the glow of his respect and love, and while it took a few seasons last year he finally mastered the front side turn and now we have loads of fun riding together.

  10. The whole point of a W-2 to is to provide stability while building a business. Your children will always make more by cutting out the middle man. So yea, be a diversity hire for a while, then leave like Sam did. Think this effects the mating game as well. For example, in dating market minorities should get a boost as they provide the option of diversity hire for your children.
    On a separate, awaiting future article on fundrise IPO?

  11. I believe that true diversity should be based on a person’s family wealth class rather than on their race. As a hypothetical example, how fair is it for a black candidate from a wealthy family to be hired over a white candidate with the same qualifications, who comes from a poor family? This approach would still assist underserved black and brown communities rather than allowing wealthy, educated black and brown individuals to take advantage.

    1. Depends on how the wealth was attained, yes?
      Strange that we recognize genetics/breeding in sports, but not elsewhere.
      Certainly Musk’s children should be hired if the position is about expanding/developing a business simply based on pedigree regardless of wealth.

  12. If somebody were willing to pay top dollar for myself being a redhead (sort of a minority), I would definitely take it. lol

  13. This article was a disappointment. You are inadvertently promoting the view that any diverse employee is a “diversity hire,” as if companies are going to hire unqualified people in order to fill some imaginary quota. Companies are not going to hire unqualified people because they want to create a diverse workplace. They do not care that much about diversity and hiring unqualified people is extremely expensive. You are reinforcing the view that any POC has been hired because they were “diverse” when that is not the case. Managers are going to be more interested in who referred you, or who you know, than the color of someone’s skin, ironically.

    1. Agree on companies hiring qualified people first. I think it’s useful to have a conversation about this topic to do away with stereotypes. It’s important to be aware of what some companies are looking for, to better get what you want. It’s important to also be aware of your true talents and to not overestimate them.

      The world is hyper-competitive. Many people are qualified to do a job, but there are only so many spots. The question is: who gets the spots and why?

      The points of this post are multi-faceted. And I hope you can take the time to assess various viewpoints.

      Feel free to share your background and experience on this topic. Thanks

    2. I’m surprised you’re not empathetic to the people who are not getting hired based on their skills and talents.

      The example of the Asian kid with a 1590 SAT score getting rejected by 16 out of 18 colleges is an example of how diversity hiring can go wrong.

      I encourage you to think about different repercussions of extreme DEI policies. It’s good to think beyond your own benefits.

      Employers are going to be much more careful, hiring people who are not the absolute most qualified during a recession.

    3. From my experience. I work at a mid-sized (2,000 people) international NGO who does care about diversity. We don’t have diversity hires, per se. But we are very excited when a great candidate applies who also happens to be non-majority. It’s like… “phew, we have a person who has different experiences and view points than most of us.” We recognize there is strength in diversity, but no, we do not hire people just bc of skin color or identity. In our sector, most of the people who apply from the US do tend to be white or asian. As a result, these two groups are very over represented at our organization. So, there is probably a small bonus point that unofficially gets added on top for any qualified non-majority applicant.

  14. Sam, I’m impressed that you got this story up when the ABC story just broke this morning. I’m still working on a post for my college admissions blog. You always have the best angles for your articles, keep up the excellent work!

  15. My wife is female, Latina, a first-generation immigrant, with a Ph.D. in engineering. That checks a lot of boxes! I’ve always told her to exploit any advantages it might give her, but she’d feel insulted if anyone would attribute her successes to diversity check boxes. She’s also quite motivated and career driven. For my part, being a white male doesn’t check any boxes, but many think it nonetheless gave me many advantages unavailable to others. In the end, I believe motivation and hard work (with some luck mixed in) can compensate for a lot, at least here in the U.S.

    I won’t lie — I’m just a little disappointed that my (half) Latino children won’t get any advantage in college admissions anymore!

    And regarding bicycles: My children were never interested in bicycles, always preferring their scooters. Then one day playing with an out-of-town cousin with a bike, my then-12-year-old boy didn’t want to look childish and learned to ride a bike in about one hour, without anybody’s help — having never sat on a bicycle in his life. He loves bikes now. So I wouldn’t worry about kids’ progress in learning to ride.


    1. “I won’t lie — I’m just a little disappointed that my (half) Latino children won’t get any advantage in college admissions anymore!”

      Why not? I don’t think banning affirmative action changes college admissions b/c the admissions application asks about background, and the Supreme Court says it’s OK to ask about background and how it has shaped who the students are today.

      I could definitely see how after getting a PhD she would feel insulted in being a diversity check box. Getting a PhD is impressive and super hard!

      As for your case, I assume it’s hard to know b/c all you know is who you are.

  16. You covered quite a lot and this is certainly a complex topic with so many layers. Do I have any insightful answers? No, I wish I did but I just have more questions and no good answers. I can say though that there are so many challenges in todays job market and hiring process. Am I worried for my kids futures? Yes, but I think they will find ways to adapt, grow a thick skin, and keep marching onward.

  17. The problem is that if you check the diversity box, everyone will assume you are a diversity hire even if you are not.

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