What Seniority Means at Work

Seniority Means More When Employees Work in the Public Sector

Group of laughing businessmen at lunch meeting
••• Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

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 an organization for a longer period of time. Seniority usually means that the employee earns more money than other employees doing similar work.

Seniority is important in some private sector workplaces, professions, skilled trades, and in union-represented workplaces.

Forward-thinking organizations are less likely to provide a preference for senior employees unless the preference is part of a number of factors considered in salary, promotion, layoffs, and other workplace employment decisions.

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

Seniority Is a Significant Factor in a Union-Represented Workplace

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

These terms and conditions of employment are agreed to in a union contract which then governs all decisions made about employees and their working conditions, time off, and general opportunities. The longer term, senior employees have the advantage over shorter term employees regardless of contribution, skills, or performance.

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

In a union-represented workplace, if a job is eliminated or a layoff becomes necessary, senior employees have bumping rights over more recent employees. In these cases, the employees with seniority (longer time on the job) may be reassigned to take over the jobs of younger and newer employees when the senior employee's job is eliminated.

Or, historically, union employees were assigned to job banks and continued to collect their pay as if they were working (eliminated in the taxpayer bailout of General Motors).

In other workplaces, seniority is a factor that may be considered by employers when making employment decisions, but it does not guarantee preferential treatment for senior employees. The employer determines whether and if seniority should determine employment decisions or the degree to which it will determine working conditions for employees.

Non-Union Workplaces May Use Employee Seniority as One of Many Factors in Decision Making—Or They May Not

In union-represented workplaces, all employment decisions are made based on seniority, but other employers have the option to use seniority as a factor in their decision-making or not.

If seniority is used by non-union employers for pay increases or promotions, it is usually considered along with additional factors such as employee contributions, performance, experience, and job fit.

Senior employees who effectively contribute are valued by employers for their experience, historical knowledge about the organization, its products and customers, and their loyalty.

Senior employees who are failing to currently contribute, for whatever reason, are not valued by employers as they create a dilemma. They are expensive because of their higher salaries, they set the example for less senior employees—either good—or bad, and their impact on the culture of the workplace is distressing as younger employees notice and feel the impact of a senior employee's failure to contribute.

Seniority Presents a Challenge in a Company Layoff

Seniority becomes important when employers make the unhappy decision to lay off employees.

Employment lawyers recommend seniority as a factor in their layoff decisions. They recommend that former employees are less likely to hit employers with discrimination charges when layoffs are done by seniority.

This, however, leaves employers with a conundrum when the newer, less experienced employees are let go first. Employers face the probability that their most educated, technology-sophisticated, lower paid talent will be eliminated first, which is why this approach is not recommended.

Seniority in Employment Decisions

Even in workplaces that do not consider seniority in employment-related decisions, employers may still honor seniority in other ways. The goals in honoring seniority are employee retention and employee engagement.

So, organizations may recognize the longevity of employees with service awards, mentoring opportunities, longevity recognition, public preference for sharing historical knowledge, and key assignments.

You want to encourage longevity from your employees because your organization benefits from having senior employees with company knowledge and experience. But, unless obligated by contract, seniority should never be the only factor considered in employment decisions.