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Seniority vs. Performance: What’s More Important to Get Promoted?

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You’ve put in the work, walked the extra mile, and have the results to show for it. You feel you’re ready to take the next step into a position of more responsibility, greater authority, and possibly even people management. When organizations decide who will get promoted, there are many considerations they have to take into account; two of which are the candidate’s seniority and performance. But which is more important?

What is Seniority vs Performance?

Seniority is how long you have been with an organization and the authority you hold within it. It may also include your previous experience before joining the organization. Whereas, performance is how successfully you have accomplished your goals and tasks, and the benefits doing so has had on your organization. Performance is not a singular event. It is a track-record of producing results in your current role.

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How To know if seniority vs performance will get you promoted?

  • The Role
    The role you are trying to move into may be the biggest factor in determining the weight of seniority vs. performance in the decision on who is promoted. Some factors may include:

    Is it in the same department? There could be a higher value placed on performance over seniority in this scenario as you have proven your ability to produce results and are ready to take on increased responsibility while working in a function you’re familiar with.

    Will you have direct reports and have you held a role of leadership previously? If a promotion would make you a first time manager, it is plausible that it may go to a candidate with more seniority. Though if your organization has employee development plans and invests in leadership training, this may lessen the need to focus on seniority as a leading criteria for promotion.

    What is the level of risk to the organization if something goes wrong in this role? If there is a high-level of risk associated with the decisions made in this role, your organization may put a higher emphasis on seniority as they may feel experience will help mitigate possible risks.
  • The Culture

    This comes down to what your organization values. If your organization lives out its culture through its mission, vision, values, in ways more than just a poster on the wall, then the culture of your organization will influence who is promoted. If they value performance, such as hitting profit targets, then it is likely they will have less of a bias towards promoting employees with a longer tenure over ones who truly drive results.

  • The Precedence

    There is no way around this. If there is a policy or precedence of promotions based on seniority or performance, their decision will likely replicate their previous promotions one way or the other. 

  • The Structure

    With the flattening of organizational structures, there are fewer opportunities for promotions today as the hieratical layers that once existed have all but disappeared. This has led to fewer opportunities for promotions. In fact, one study found that on average just nine percent of employees in a company receive a promotion on an annual basis. The result of this is increased competition and scrutiny of who is promoted.

    In these scenarios, the easy decision may be to put more emphasis on seniority. Performance is always a factor, but when there are less opportunities, a committed and loyal employee may be the one who is selected for the promotion to reduce the likelihood of the promotion being challenged.

 

Conclusion: Seniority and Performance both Matter, It Just Depends to What Extent

There are many factors that determine who will be promoted. Although there are elements that are out of your control, such as seniority, there are others that your actions directly impact. From your attitude towards your accountabilities, colleagues, and organization, to your willingness to step up and take initiative, to seeking opportunities to learn and grow your skills, these are things that will always benefit your career progression.


While we cannot give you a definitive answer to the seniority vs. performance debate, we can tell you that being proactive in regards to your development will set you up with the skills and knowledge you need to eventually step up into a more senior role.

In fact, according to a study conducted by Wyzant and Recruiter.com, nearly half of working Americans don’t get promoted because of lack of training. So, continue cultivating your skills and seeking out development opportunities such as online courses, industry conferences, and mentors who can equip you with new techniques and best practices. In the end, these are the actions of someone who truly wants to earn that promotion.

Work Smarter, Not Harder: 8 Ways to Take Control of Your Day