Rethinking Seniority in the Promotion Process

As a consultant I am frequently asked about my views concerning the role that seniority should play in the promotion process. Though a seemingly innocuous or even straight forward question, I have found it to be neither.

As a matter of fact it can be somewhat of a loaded (political and emotional) question depending on who is doing the asking. The complexity of the issue is not so much in the question itself, but rather in the response to the question.

Different stakeholders expect and often actively seek responses that will support their various interests or positions. The varied responses depend on whether the question is being posed by an employee (either those with more seniority or those with less seniority), the employer, or the union. These various constituents can have diametrically opposed answers to this singular question.

Whenever I am asked if seniority should be the “centerpiece” of the promotion process, I usually respond with “it all depends”. Such a response can be viewed as a non-committal position, but from my perspective it accomplishes several important things:
• It gives me time to think, gather more information and make a better assessment of the present situation.
• It avoids the appearance of choosing a position before discussing the issue.
• It conveys to the questioner that the answer is not necessarily simple and gives him/her an opportunity to ask further questions.
• It gives the questioner time to think and enough “mental” room to at least entertain the idea that there might be alternatives to his/her point of view.

A clarification of the concept of “seniority” is critical before any constructive discussion can take place. How do we define this concept? If one defines the concept in a way that only applies to the length of time spent in a job or at a particular organization and nothing else, then it raises some serious issues when it is related to organizational settings.

A definition that is purely tenure-based can be problematic to an organization in several respects:
• It can promote an “entitlement” organizational mentality rather than an “achievement/performance” based mentality. Promotions in such environments become a right that is embraced, rather than something to be earned or achieved.
• It can serve as a disincentive for employee development. If one only “sits” and waits until it is his/her turn to move up, what are the incentives for that person to do more or even get better?
• It can rob the company of valuable talent. Talented individuals will not stay in an environment where they believe that their talents are not being recognized or rewarded, or which they regard to be unfair. Talented employees will always have employment options. Such employees are usually quite employable due to their enhanced skills, superior knowledge, and exceptional performance. They are usually the employees most likely to leave an organization when they are dissatisfied.
• It can sap the company of its vibrancy and competitiveness. If the “best” people are not occupying the critical positions, this will eventually affect the organization’s overall level of performance and consequently its level of productivity and competitiveness.

However, if by “seniority” one is referring to an employee who not only has the necessary tenure, but has managed to accumulate over the years a variety of skills, a string of accomplishments, and an enviable performance track record, then I am all for using it as “the” promotional criteria. A seniority system that is both tenure-based and performance-based works best for any organization. It ensures the long-term viability and sustainability of that organization. Such a system promotes the following:
• A “performance-based” organizational environment.
• An organization that values training and development for its employees.
• An organization that appreciates and rewards employees’ loyalty to the company.
• An organization where employees’ skills are aligned with its strategic objectives.
• An organization that is productive and competitive.

All promotional systems should have as their sole purpose the filling of identified positions with the most qualified persons. Anything less than this will not be in the best interest of those chosen or of the organization as a whole. The promotional decisions of an organization send messages to employees that are far more comprehensible than just filling job slots. Such decisions often convey to employees how much they are valued and appreciated by the organization as well as any possible future roles they will be allowed to play in the entity. Therefore, any promotional system, seniority included, used by an organization should be carefully thought through, always linked to performance, and perceived by all employees as being equitable and fair.

Nathan Charles
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