Does seniority equal entitlement?

I was speaking with a colleague the other day about a recent reorganization we were aware of at another company that essentially replaced the head of a department with that person's subordinate. My colleague noted that was a shame because the person demoted (he wasn't let go) had seniority over the person who assumed his duties.

My reaction was "What does seniority have to do with the ability to manage effectively and drive a unit to success?" Seniority is one of those areas in work life that I am really torn on. I believe that hard work, commitment, and loyalty should be rewarded but longevity in a position is not necessarily proof of that. Because of poor management practices, there are times when a person with less than stellar performance remains around for a long time because she's trouble and rather than deal with her, management passes her around. Over time this employee not only remains with the organization but often climbs the ladder as well!

I'm not implying that this was the case with the employee my colleague and I were speaking of, just that when you begin to talk about seniority, the waters can get muddy really fast.

There's no doubt that an employee's longevity in an organization can be beneficial. However, does being around a long time mean that one should be automatically promoted should the opportunity arise?

My answer is no. While I think it should play a factor in the decision making, I don't believe it should be weighted so heavily as to make the outcome inevitable. I stand by the argument that the most qualified person for the position should be in the position - period. This is, of course, ignoring office politics (which is the elephant in the room that I am conveniently ignoring right now).

Those readers who are unionized are probably reading the above and having a conniption fit right about now. Organized labor is often heavily slanted towards seniority and one must "pay his dues" (no pun intended) before getting a shot at a promotion. Perhaps even more importantly, they place a great deal of emphasis on seniority when it comes to reductions in force, with a first-in, last-out type of mentality thta can result in less senior employees "bumped" out of their positions.

While I understand the safeguards this provides (it curtails management from cutting higher-wage employees and replacing them with lower-paid less senior employees), there's an underlying unfairness in it all. Being someplace for a long time should not equate to entitlement at any level of the organization.

Having said all of the above, in a perfect world, the most qualified person for a position would fill a position when it becomes available. However we don't live in that perfect world nor is determining who is best qualified anything close to an exact science. In fact, it's closer to an art than a science.

Now, let's talk about that elephant in the room. Politics can and does encompass everything from personal likes and dislikes, organizational power, organizational and personal values and beliefs, contracts, policy and procedures, just to name a few. These factors add to the complexity of the promotion/retention process. Seniority can and often does fall into the area of organizational and personal beliefs or explicit rules based on a contract.

If the rules are explicit regarding seniority, the process is simplified. But I'll argue that the results are not optimal for the organization.

If the rules are not explicit, then the results vary and can lead to optimal hires for an organization or not, depending on the culture of the organization and the tendency for management to view seniority as an entitlement.

We're all familiar with the Peter Principle, that people rise to their level of incompetence, is strongly rooted in promotion by seniority. Being around for a long time doesn't necessarily equal being best qualified for a position. I will reiterate that there is some value in longevity, but it should not be over emphasized.

It's a problem when employees who haven't been "around long enough" are not even considered for a higher position." That practice can be detrimental for the organization and demoralizing for staff. People don't want to see someone get promoted who is less qualified than they are, no matter how long they've been with the organization.

Obviously this is not clear cut issue, but in the realm of management and leadership, longevity may or may not make you wise and it should not be a guarantee for promotion. Agree or disagree? Have you been passed over for promotion because someone more senior got the position and you felt better qualified? Let me know what you think.