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It's Time to Stop Seniority-based Promotions

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

The practice of promoting employees based on time in position is one of the oldest—and most outdated—HR practices. The long-held expectation that employees naturally deserve greater responsibility once they have mastered their current position has caused far greater damage to organizations than we realize.

We promote from within as a means of demonstrating we value employee performance and commitment to the organization. They’ve stuck with us and are high performers. They’ve done their time. They go above and beyond their job description by working extra overtime and helping out wherever needed. Simply put…

“They deserve this promotion.”

And we have it all wrong.


Employees who do their job well are great at their current job. That’s it! Being great at performing one position does not mean we’ll be great—or even good—in a more senior role. We have to change this belief that employee tenure is the driving factor in determining who deserves the promotion.

If there’s a problem with promoting from within, then how do we identify the right employees to promote?

It starts with leadership attributes.

Leadership is about possessing expertise in a particular area while holding the right attributes to be a successful leader in our particular organization. Certainly, leaders who know how to do the job of their direct reports have an advantage over a leader who has no clue. They have expert knowledge regarding the operations and the ‘ins and outs’ of the unit (and organization members) they are leading. They can troubleshoot, problem solve, and find the right answers. But that does not mean they know how to lead OR that they want to lead.

Consider this: We work together at the same company and perform the same job. We report to the same individual who is retiring, and one of us will fill her role. I have been in this position five years more than you. I have better troubleshooting skills and a deeper knowledge about the organization. But I also am arrogant and not well-liked by colleagues. I often talk over people and throw mini tantrums when decisions I disagree with are made. I’ve been tasked with training new employees in the past, but I find they just get in my way of doing my own job. They slow me down and, frankly, I find many other coworkers lazy. If something goes wrong, I blame others, even if little could have been done to prevent the issue. But I’ve been here five extra years and have been waiting for this promotion because the raise will REALLY help my retirement plans.

I’m guessing you aren’t very interested in working with me much less for me! Just like others aren’t going to want to work for me. And yet in most organizations, I would have a heck of a chance of receiving that promotion. And THAT is a problem.

We need to change how we fill leadership roles by emphasizing the leadership attributes one possesses that are going to be necessary for them to be successful. This means not only having updated and comprehensive job descriptions that include the requisite technical AND soft skills of the position. Further, we need to evaluate and prioritize their leadership skills possessed over seniority. There are personality assessments available free of charge that can be used as a baseline. We have past performance evaluations that can help us identify instances where leadership was demonstrated, as well as examples where employee behaviors or attitudes were not reflective of the desired attributes.

Finally, we emphasize assessment of the extent to which employees—regardless of seniority—actually want to lead others. How much they are willing to put in extra work training, developing, communicating, mentoring, and guiding our workforce. Looking beyond the pay increase and sexy title, we need to challenge employees under consideration to take an in-depth look at their current obligations and long-term career goals.

In the short term, this approach to promoting employees establishes a progressive work culture which prioritizes leadership skills and attitudes as an equally important factor in employee’s career advancement.

For organizations willing to take the leap, the adjustment period will be challenging. Long-term employees have become accustomed to believing they deserve promotion opportunities when they become available. But over the long term, the organization will grow stronger as employee productivity and retention improves because of our natural interest in working for exceptional leaders. In turn, our organization’s performance will improve because we have the right leaders in place. High turnover and incivility become issues of the past. Sounds like a healthy work environment to me!


“Employees don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses”?


One final note addressing an important question you’re likely asking…

What do we do with those employees who have stuck with us but lack the leadership attributes? We don’t want to lose them!

First—examine the pay structure of employees. If high-performing employees consistently outproduce their colleagues, continue to reward them! They shouldn’t HAVE to be promoted to be paid their worth. This could mean they earn wages comparable to their supervisor. That’s okay! Happens all the time in sales!

Second—if the high-performing employee wants to be in a managerial role but doesn’t possess the requisite leadership skills—start developing them. Make leadership development a priority in annual performance evaluations. Invest in their development. And encourage them to continue to grow. Establish goals that can be evaluated to assess how well leadership skills and attitudes have been developed. These metrics can be used to objectively evaluate readiness for eventual promotion.

Organizations across the country are desperate to find and retain employees. No one seems content to stay with their current employer. How about promoting the employees everyone wants to work for?

We’re in this together.

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