Workplace seniority is generally a principle of a unionized workforce. However, its usage can be helpful in nonunionized work environments as well. Seniority can be used to justify giving choice work assignments, making shift changes and rewarding employees for long-term service to the company.
Seniority refers to the length of employment or service. For example, an employee who has been with the company for 20 years has greater seniority than an employee who’s been working for the company just three years. When an employee quits working for the company and then returns, that’s called a break in seniority or a break in service. In special circumstances, employers excuse the break in service, which means they restore the employee’s seniority. Employers who adopt this practice generally explain it in the employee handbook, during new hire orientation or within the company’s standard operating procedures.
Many employers use seniority to determine who gets first preference on vacation time and holidays. For employees who are required to work holidays – particularly in health care and protective services – having greater seniority means they might not have to work every holiday. For new employees with lower seniority, it means they might be required to work holidays until they put in their time. Employee seniority is also used to grant requests for vacation time. Long-term employees have first pick for the most desirable vacation periods, such as year-end and summer holiday seasons.
In work environments where employees have varying shifts, employees with greater seniority select their preferred work schedule. In a 24-hour production facility, employees who have been with the company longer might prefer to work day shifts instead of being assigned the graveyard shift, a shift that’s usually the least desirable of all. When there is a shift rotation, employees with greater seniority have the opportunity to place the first bids on shifts they prefer. This is a form of recognition for long-term employees, a principle similar to other motivational techniques wherein long-term employees receive their rewards in the form of the schedule of their choosing.
Seniority is a factor in delegating plum work assignments, such as training new employees or being designated a team leader. Long-term employees are likely to be more familiar with company and work procedures. This is a tremendous help to the human resources department and department supervisors. This principle of seniority suggests that employees with greater seniority have levels of proficiency that new employees do not. They know routine processes as well as company expectations and unwritten rules.
A common practice in seniority-based employment is recognizing employees for their service to the company. The principle of seniority in this instance indicates an employee has a high level of commitment and that the employer has created a work environment and working relationship that encourage longevity. Service pins – particularly in the federal government – are a way to recognize employees who have spent a great portion of their career with one employer. Other ways to recognize seniority include monetary rewards, special perks, commendation letters and retirement gifts.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In addition, she is a certified facilitator for the Center for Creative Leadership Benchmarks 360 Assessment Suite, and is a Logical Operations Modern Classroom Certified Trainer . Ruth resides in North Carolina and works from her office in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.