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Promoting Employees: Do You Favor Seniority or Superiority?

When you're growing fast, you need to make the promotion process simple and effective. So what's the best way to decide who deserves to move up?

Dear Jeff,

My company is growing at such a rapid rate that I'm tempted to start promoting people based on seniority. I know that is not a perfect solution but it sure would streamline the promotion process and allow us to focus on more important things.

-- Name withheld by request

Promoting based solely on seniority is not just an imperfect solution--it's a terrible solution.

Plus it's also a cop-out: Everyone I've ever talked to who promoted based on seniority eventually admitted they did so not because it was easier but because it allowed them to avoid having to tell employees why they weren't selected for the job. So if that's the real reason you're thinking about it... shame on you. Your employees--especially your great employees--deserve better.

I have a bunch of problems with seniority-based promotions:

  • They stifle motivation. Why should I work harder? As long as I meet job requirements, all I have to do is wait my turn.
  • They stifle initiative. Why should I volunteer? Why should I step up? It doesn't help me.
  • They fuel resentment. Even so, some employees will work harder. Some will step up. That's how they're made. Then they watch relative slackers get promoted. They have such a solid work ethic they still work hard, but boy do they resent those who don't and yet are somehow rewarded.
  • They hinder recruiting. No superstar wants to work in an environment where their talents aren't rewarded. Promote based on seniority and soon the only people you'll attract are those that are attracted to a seniority-based system--and you don't want those folks.
  • They create a culture of mediocrity. How you treat your employees is often how they will treat customers. If you don't expect and then reward excellence, why would your employees think your customers deserve excellence?

I would also argue that there are no more "important things" than how you treat your employees. If you think it's too much trouble to know your employees, to know their skills and talents, to know their strengths and weaknesses and put them in spots where they can showcase their strengths and improve their weaknesses, then you need to get someone else to run your business.

And if all this doesn't convince you, here's one more reason. As a start-up your company competes with plenty of businesses with greater "length of service" in your market. You'd be royally pissed if a potential customer said, "We're going with ACME because they've been in business longer." In your mind, customers shouldn't care about the fact you're new; they should focus on and choose you for the simple reason that you are better.

Shouldn't you treat your employees the same way?

Last updated: Nov 1, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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