Merit Relative to Opportunity Guidelines


These guidelines apply to all staff members at the University.


These guidelines provide further explanation, examples and recommended best practices for implementing the Merit Relative to Opportunity Policy and Procedures.


In contemporary universities, the traditional norm of fulltime work and an uninterrupted, linear career trajectory no longer matches the profile of many staff.


Universities face considerable challenges relating to the sustainability and development of the workforce, particularly the academic workforce. Considering Merit Relative to Opportunity in employment and performance-related decision making provides the university sector with the opportunity to create workplace cultures that attract and retain the very best staff with a diverse range of personal characteristics, employment arrangements and career histories. (Rafferty et al)


‘Certain groups, including women, people with disabilities and Indigenous staff may be less able to comply with these formal and informal norms and therefore less likely to accrue achievements at the expected rate. Equity interventions must engage with basic work practices and processes and the norms that underlie them, in order to re-vision them in ways that are more inclusive and effective for organisations’ (Kolb et al, 1998).



  • What is merit relative to opportunity?
  • Application of merit relative to opportunity
  • Relevant circumstances
  • Examples


What is merit relative to opportunity?

  • Merit relative to opportunity means positive acknowledgement of what  has been achieved given the opportunities available - in contrast to a ’special consideration’ approach that highlights the negative impact of personal circumstances on performance or expects lesser standards of performance
  • It re-examines the concept of merit (traditionally derived from a fulltime, uninterrupted, linear career history), and the associated expectations of quantity, rate, consistency and breadth of outputs, and how these productivity factors may be affected by personal circumstances and working arrangements
  • Overall quality and impact of contributions and achievements are given more weight than the quantity, rate or breadth of particular achievements
  • It applies to recruitment, performance management and development, promotion and the awarding of grants and fellowships.
  • The principle applies equally to academic and professional/general staff members

Staff members with delays or breaks in service due to caring responsibilities may benefit from a more calibrated assessment of their performance; however, this initiative is as much about recognising the impact of generational change and shifting attitudes to work and the implications for the higher education sector, already recruiting in a highly competitive labour market. 


Application of merit relative to opportunity

When the principle of consideration of merit relative to opportunity is included within employment policies and practices, individuals are invited to disclose relevant professional/personal circumstances and working arrangements (e.g. ill-health, parental leave, part-time work) and their timing and duration.  Personal details such as precise diagnosis of medical conditions need not be given. Applicants may wish to compare their own career achievements with benchmarked data e.g. a part time academic returned from parental leave may describe the impact on the opportunity to conduct research and publish at a rate similar to a fulltime academic with no periods of leave.


Appropriate consideration can be given to these circumstances and the effect they can have and have had on:

  • overall time available
  • the quantum or rate of productivity
  • the opportunity to participate in certain types of activities
  • the consistency of activities or output over the period of consideration


Decision makers (managers or committees) can make merit-based assessments that focus upon

  • the assessment of quality
  • ensuring that all relevant standards have been met, and
  • taking into account how individual circumstances can affect opportunity and productivity during a given period


Staff members can be assessed on an individual basis in terms of how well they meet the relevant expectations and not on a comparative basis with other individuals in the pool. When decision makers are required to make comparisons between individuals (for example, in recruitment) the tendency to privilege the individual with the “most merit” should be avoided when the opportunities to accrue merit are not evenly distributed amongst the individuals.


Relevant circumstances may include:

  • Carer responsibilities for children, elderly parents, or ill family members
  • Ill-health, impairment or medical conditions, whether temporary, episodic or permanent
  • Part-time or flexible working arrangements
  • Career interruptions and delays such as parental leave


While these circumstances will be taken into account in assessing merit relative to opportunity, it is not intended that activities undertaken during a career break should also be used as evidence of achievement e.g if a promotions applicant has interrupted their career to work in the community, they cannot both request a merit relative to opportunity assessment of the period out of university employment, and also claim the work undertaken during that time as a service contribution.

All information submitted in relation to personal circumstances will be kept confidential and will be used only for the purposes of assessing the application in which it is contained.



  • A staff member returns to work after a “career interruption” of parental leave, which affects research productivity during this period and immediately afterwards as they re-establish research projects and networks
  • A part‐time staff member describes how their attendance on campus for three days a week allows them to make significant and on-going contributions to a limited number of roles and committees within their faculty and in their discipline. In assessing thier application, the “sustained” and high quality of service is acknowledged, and they are not penalised for a lack of breadth of service
  • A staff member with sole caring responsibilities for elderly parents has limited capacity to present at international conferences but lists a high citation rate for a small but appropriate number of publications in prestigious journals. Based on a holistic assessment, the FSC determines that the applicant has demonstrated the appropriate quality and impact of performance in the overall criterion of “research” without penalising them for relatively lower output in any single research‐related activity or for overall research output
  • A part‐time staff member calculates their overall service time in “effective fulltime years of service” in a promotion application and demonstrates how their achievements are consistent with expectations of performance at the appropriate academic level for the number of fulltime years
  • An academic applying for promotion took a period of leave four years ago to care for their terminally ill child. This has created a gap in the research record and reduced productivity after returning to work. The FSC considered the applicant's prior and current rate of productivity and made an assessment based on the quality of the work which did not require continuous and uninterrupted performance for success
  • A staff member describes how a significant illness in the years immediately prior to a promotion application has affected overall productivity. In assessing this application consistent with a “whole of career” approach that does not require a consistent level of type of contribution every single year, the FSC acknowledges that a “sustained high achievement” of the requisite quality has been demonstrated, although recent output has been affected by personal circumstances
  • A staff member who cares for a child with an impairment must always leave by 4.30pm to collect the child from the therapy centre. This has restricted their ability to participate in team building events which occur outside of working hours and in some significant receptions for external communities. In the EVOLVE performance assessment, the reviewer affirms the person's skills in ‘Planning and Organisation’ on the basis of evidence that they have used time and resources effectively to build relationships within the time that was available
  • An applicant for a vacancy has undergone successful cancer treatment. As a result of time out having treatment and recuperation their CV is less full than some other applicants. The interview committee decide that taking career gaps into account, the overall quality of their previous performance is superior to other applicants
  • A professional part-time staff member applying for a more senior position calculates overall service time in “effective fulltime years of service” and demonstrates how their achievements are consistent with expectations of performance at the appropriate level for the number of fulltime years


The following definitions apply to this document:

Staff member refers to an individual employed by the University on a full time or part time basis

University means the University of Auckland and includes all subsidiaries

Key relevant documents

Include the following: 


This paper has been developed from:

Group of Eight HR Directors Staff Equity Subcommittee Project Consideration of Merit Relative to Opportunity in Employment-Related Decisions Discussion Paper (Lara Rafferty ,Barbara Dalton, Beverley Hill, Inge Saris, Lee Atkinson-Barrett and Lucy Maynard)


Kolb, D., Fletcher, J., Meyerson, D., Merill-Sand, D., and Ely, R. (1998) Making Change: A Framework for Promoting Gender Equity in Organisations. Centre for Gender in Organisations, Simmons Graduate School of Management, Boston, Briefing Note No. 1. The University of Melbourne.  Academic Promotions: Guidelines for assessment of “performance against opportunity”.


Special thanks to the Go8 HR Directors Staff Equity Subcommittee and The Universities of Melbourne and Western Australia for allowing use of their resources.

Document management and control

Content manager: Director Staff Equity

Owner: Pro-Vice Chancellor Equity

Date of last review: 17 November 2016

Further information

More information about the University’s commitment to be a fair and inclusive place to study and work can be found on the Equity Office website.