What Seniority Means at Work

Seniority means more in the public sector

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Seniority is the length of time that an individual has served in a job or worked for an organization. Seniority can bring higher status, rank, or precedence to an employee who has served for a longer period of time. And it generally means employees with seniority earn more money than other employees doing the same (or very similar) work.

Seniority is important in some private sector establishments and among professions, skilled trades, and union-represented workplaces. Forward-thinking organizations are less likely to provide a preference for senior employees unless the preference is part of factors considered in salary, promotion, layoff, and other workplace employment decisions.

In evaluations of employees, other considerations in addition to seniority include the employee's contribution to the accomplishment of work goals, building successful relationships with other employees, a commitment to developing and maintaining the desired workplace culture, and a commitment to the creation of an environment that helps employees grow and succeed.

Seniority Is Significant in Union-Represented Workplaces

In a union-represented workplace, seniority drives the majority of decisions made about employees. These decisions include such areas as employee wages, designated work hours, vacation time, promotions, overtime, preferred jobs, preferred shifts, cross-training opportunities, and other employee benefits and privileges.

That's because the terms and conditions of employment are agreed to in a union contract that then governs all decisions made about employees, including their working conditions, time off, and general opportunities. Longer-term senior employees have an advantage over shorter-term employees regardless of contributions, skills, or performance.

This is also true of skilled trade workers when represented by a union. In fact, the decision as to who becomes an apprentice and learns a skilled trade is negotiated by a union.

In a union-represented workplace, if a job is eliminated or a layoff becomes necessary, senior employees have job rights over recent employees. In these cases, an employee with seniority may even be reassigned to take over the job of a newer employee when the senior employee's job is eliminated.

Nonunion Workplaces 

If seniority is used by nonunion employers as a basis for pay increases or promotions, it's usually considered in addition to factors such as employee contributions, performance, experience, and job fit.

Senior employees who effectively contribute are valued by employers for their experience, organizational knowledge, product and customer knowledge, and loyalty.

Senior employees who fail to contribute are not valued by employers and actually create a dilemma. They're expensive because of their higher salaries, and they may be setting a bad example for less-senior employees. In this case, their jobs will not be protected.

Seniority Presents a Challenge in Company Layoffs

Seniority becomes important when employers make the unhappy decision to lay off employees. Employment lawyers recommend seniority as a factor in their layoff decisions. Laid-off employees are also less likely to slap employers with discrimination charges if the layoffs are done according to seniority.

Seniority in Employment Decisions

Even in workplaces that don't consider seniority in employment-related decisions, employers may still honor seniority in other ways, including employee engagement and retention.

Organizations may also recognize the longevity of employees with service awards, mentoring opportunities, longevity recognition, public preference for sharing organizational knowledge, and key assignments.

Encouraging longevity from employees benefits an organization by cultivating senior employees with company knowledge and experience. But unless the employer is obligated by contract, seniority should never be the only factor considered in employment decisions.