For many years a management custom has existed within many private sector companies described as the ‘next in line’ philosophy. This refers to an employee promotion practice primarily based and created by seniority.
Pre-2000 I worked for a highly recognizable company that subscribed to that very tradition. Seriously, and sadly, there was seldom any change, new blood or new thinking embraced. Unfortunately many staff had no other outside experiences, expected the wrong people to become their managers and ‘protection’ existed around weak management. When times were good, it went unnoticed. When the going got tough, it became very obvious and yet nothing ever changed.
Today, with the average life span of an employee down to 4.2 years, the importance of seniority in the workplace has become greatly reduced. The good news is – length of employment is no longer tied to salary increases or career advancement. It is more likely that fair and equitable remuneration is tied to individual performance and/or the company’s performance.
Experience has proven that promotion entitlement is the antithesis of continuous improvement. Promotions are not about longevity. Promotions are not about reward and punishment. Promotions are not a prize for a job well done in the past. Hopefully most companies today base their promotion decisions on the ability of an individual to deliver expected results and provide excellence in their workplace.
There is no evidence that seniority alone means an individual has the ability to manage effectively and drive the success of a business unit. There have been too many documented cases where seniority and entitlement is the root of the problem with performance management.
It is a mistake to assume that superior performance in one job will automatically translate into the equivalent success in the next. We have all seen, or experienced, the promotion of the top salesperson to sales manager. WRONG! The skills of the best sales people are not part of the makeup of a successful sales manager. The same can be said of technical employees. The best technical resources are not generally conducive to performing well in supervisory roles. Technical skills and managing people are seldom linked. Why create a situation where valuable people are forced to ‘change their spots’?
Promoting senior employees may be a valid factor, and not one to overlook. At the same time, it is critical to avoid having a ‘next in line’ guarantee of a promotion expectation to exist. The more senior employees are not necessarily the more productive employees. Senior employees may not always support a company’s evolving business strategy or new initiatives. They may prefer the long-standing ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ kind of thinking.
The most successful promotion policies do not regard ‘prolonged existence’ as the key reason for ‘climbing the ladder’. Progressive organizations consider all qualified talent, regardless of length of service, when opportunities open up or are created. At the same time, forward thinking companies never eliminate management’s option to explore outside recruitment.
Managing people is one of the most difficult and challenging aspects any individual will experience following a promotion. Having the right people and leadership skills is often the chief reason someone is selected for promotion. One does not become a leader by title alone; and not everyone has the skills or is cut out to become a manager.
Does seniority equal entitlement?
There is definitely value in longevity. In most cases, senior staff may have acquired solid company knowledge and wisdom. They may also have well-established relationships that help get things done. Being with a company over a period of time may also provide the benefit of hindsight.
A promotion, by definition, is a form of advancement or movement into new territory. Promotions are also not only about compensation – they are about taking on a role with a different set of responsibilities than the last. There was a time when career progression was thought to only be vertical – up the food chain – up the ladder. We have since realized that horizontal growth is just as valuable to a business – and sometimes even more so.
Success is not always a vertical straight line. There is significant value in offering employees horizontal career planning. This is what may be referred to as ‘job enlargement and /or enrichment”. To take this direction, there must be support for develop career growth and advancement that include increased job scope for all levels and roles in the company. This strategy creates a climate for improved job satisfaction and lower employee turnover. It also contributes to building a fair, effective and desirable company brand.
Note: added responsibility would also provide increased compensation.
Poor management practices can allow individuals with less than stellar performance to be automatically promoted when an opportunity became available. When a company’s culture is firmly rooted in the ‘sticking around for a promotion’ mentality, people who were once considered valuable may be set up for failure. Good people can be put into a position where they rise to their own level of incompetence.
There is a tremendous (and often fatal) flaw in a system based primarily on promotion by seniority. Some of the organization’s most promising talent may realize they won’t ever be offered the career progress they desire and deserve. There is an unwritten message that is loud and clear – the organization does not care about excellence, contribution or creativity.
Some of the most recognized problems created by seniority-based promotions:
- Stifles motivation and initiative
- Fuels resentment
- Hinders recruiting
- Creates a culture of mediocrity
- Ambitious workers leave because they are not willing to “wait their turn”
- Performance, good or bad, has no meaningful consequence
- Demotion of a worker who has not succeeded after being promoted
Conversely, what happens when the Entitlement Cycle is broken?
- Employees are promoted based on skills, talents and merits
- Employee morale is increased and motivation is boosted
- Increased productivity and extra effort are rewarded
- Employees respect the strongest performers and expect them to be promoted
- Employees realize they will be considered for promotion along with external candidates
- Politic-ing, favouritism and dead wood are no longer tolerated or accepted
Leadership, and human resources, must create and support a high quality performance appraisal system that tracks the overall ratings, progress and areas needing improvement for each employee. This is something that must be done throughout the year and NOT only annually.
Leadership must recognize, encourage and support managers that retain and continue to develop high potential talent. Additionally, it is critical to track managers that quickly address any poor performance issues and/or poor morale/attitude problems before they permit weak players to dilute the business.
Finally, developing a fair, equitable and effective process for determining and outlining employee promotions – both vertically and horizontally – paves the way for a healthy, dynamic, responsive, happy and successful company
Inc. Magazine’s Point of View on promotion from within