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Seniority Rights

Michael E. Walleman, Detective Lieutenant, Criminal Investigation Division, St. Clair Shores Police Department, St. Clair Shores, Michigan

he available research about seniority rights provides a great deal of information, some positive and some negative, with most providing a universal prospective on how these rights affect the organization or industry. Common advice given from the early research on seniority rights addressed what management must do to improve productivity for the benefit of the organization. In one early study, researchers concluded that with proper management practices, officer productivity could increase to 80 percent to 90 percent of their potential.1 However, the study did not address how these rights affect the individual officer, and thus the performance of the organization. As such, this article describes a study of the current relationship between police seniority practices and the effect these practices have on morale and police officer performance.

This dynamic was investigated through the administration of a 34-question survey to sworn officers in eight midsized police departments in Michigan. The results indicated seniority rights are a dominant determinate for officer pay scale, shift selection, vacation selection, lateral transfer, and promotional ranking. These rights are widely accepted by responding officers for pay scale, shift selection, and vacation selection. However, the data also indicate a strong desire to replace seniority rights with performance standards in areas that concern career advancement, such as lateral transfer and promotional opportunities.

Seniority-Based Practices

How, if at all, do seniority-based practices affect officer performance, personnel morale, and overall performance in police departments? Adams’s Equity Theory states that a perceived inequity (in this case, by officers) can develop when workers feel the rewards (that is, salaries, job assignments, shift selection, and promotions) they receive for their efforts are not equal to others’ performance and rewards. This perception can lead officers to decrease their efforts to equalize the inequity, or it may cause the effort to increase—if, by doing so, greater rewards can be obtained.2

Many departments engage in collective bargaining, resulting in officer seniority becoming the dominate factor that determines pay scale, shift selection, vacation selection, lateral transfers, and promotional opportunity. These long-standing practices are ingrained into the very fabric and culture of many organizations. As a result, these procedures perpetuate a relationship between the department’s administration and its rank-and-file members. Oftentimes, this relationship becomes negative because discipline is sometimes used to improve performance. This type of relationship is indicative of the traditional police organization in which the leadership is authoritarian. Punishment is applied by supervisors as motivation when officers fail to produce or follow orders, negatively affecting morale.3

Research indicates a seniority-based environment has the potential to lower officer performance, negatively affect morale at all levels of the department, and interfere with the agency’s basic function of serving the citizens it represents. A study conducted by Byrne, Dezhbakhsh, and King examined the effect unions had on police productivity.4 The results indicated that unionization had an insignificant effect on production when dealing with serious crime but did diminish productivity for minor or quality-of-life crimes.

Seniority rights systems equalize all members of the organization and eliminate the need for its members to establish a hierarchy of status based on the performance of individuals. All members are the same with the exception of their seniority level, which determines their organizational standing. Seniority rights allow organizational members to be treated differently and equally at the same time. They are treated differently because of their individual seniority and equally because of the basic premise of “paying your dues”—that is, if you stay around long enough, you, too, will obtain the benefits of a senior member.5

Recent research indicates that by giving employees control over their careers, enabling them to advance through hard work, and giving them a voice in organizational matters, agencies can elicit the best work their employees have to offer. Some seniority rewards systems have their origins based on the human capital on-the-job training mind-set. It is common for experienced workers to be paid more and receive more perks than those with less experience or seniority. However, no correlation has been found for higher performance between senior, higher-paid employees and that of lower-paid, less-experienced employees.6 Conversely, there is evidence that performance-related pay attracts higher-quality people and motivates them to perform better.7

Literature points to a substantial utilization of seniority rights practices within the policing profession. These practices have developed over many years through the collective-bargaining process as a means to counter perceived unfair managerial practices and to create a system that was perceived as fair to all members of the organization. However, other research has shown seniority systems can have an adverse affect on officer morale, performance, and departmental effectiveness. Additional research has indicated the need for police agencies to change from the bureaucratic, authoritarian model to a more flattened, hierarchical structure with the adoption of a participative management style. These changes are considered necessary to improve officer productivity and the overall effectiveness of the police agency.

The Michigan Survey

The purpose of research at eight midsized police departments in southeast Michigan was to investigate officer perceptions regarding seniority-rights practices as the dominate factor affecting departmental operations and career advancement. This study asked three questions:

  1. What are officers’ personal feelings and attitudes towards seniority rights?

  2. Do officers prefer to advance their careers through personal efforts or have advancement based on their seniority?

  3. Would officers be in favor of changing from seniority rights to a performance-standards system?

The data obtained in this study were analyzed through the use of descriptive statistics. All line and supervisory personnel from each agency were asked to voluntarily participate.

Major Determinants

This study shows seniority rights remain an integral component at the police agencies surveyed. This author believes the data acquired are indicative of other police agencies that operate under a similar paradigm.

Each one of the eight participating departments (see demographics at right) indicated seniority was a major determinant for pay scale, shift and vacation selection, lateral transfers, and promotional opportunities. However, similar studies involving additional police agencies operating under similar circumstances would need to be conducted to test the generalizability of this study.

The responses to the questions indicate the officers surveyed are willing to concede pay scale and shift and vacation selection to seniority rights. When asked if a superior-performing junior officer should be paid more than a sub-performing senior officer, 75.2 percent answered “no.” In addition, the same was asked for shift and vacation selection, with the respondents answering “no” at 85.9 percent and 91.7 percent, respectively. These percentages indicate a high level of acceptance for seniority rights with regard to these concerns.

Loyalty to Seniority Rights

When developing this study, this author assumed that as seniority of the respondents increased, so would loyalty to seniority rights. It was surprising to see the responses from the far end of the seniority spectrum when asked about using performance as the determining factor for pay scale. The total for all respondents was 73 percent against using performance as the determining factor. However, within the sample of respondents with seniority of more than 25 years, 52 percent felt performance should be the determining factor. This was unexpected, but may be explained as being a more candid response from people who are nearing the end of their careers and are able to speak more frankly about their opinions.

Career Advancement

When asked about career advancement through lateral transfer and promotional opportunities, respondents were very much in favor of having their performance levels determine their outcomes. The data indicate an overwhelming desire of the respondents to be in control of their own destinies and career advancement.

Other questions were asked to determine what lengths the respondents would go to in order to benefit their careers if they knew their efforts would have a positive effect on their goals. The majority, 66.1 percent, indicated that they would voluntarily increase their levels of productivity; 80.7 percent, their education; 86.9 percent, their training; and 55 percent, their community-volunteer involvement. These percentages not only indicate the desires of the respondents but also the benefit to their departments and communities by gaining more qualified, dedicated officers.

Willingness to Change

This study has shown a profound dissatisfaction in some areas of the current system but also a reluctance to make wholesale changes away from seniority to performance as the measure of one’s worth. Generally, individuals are inclined to resist change out of fear of the unknown, even when the changes may be beneficial to everyone. Law enforcement is particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. For change of this magnitude to be accepted and successful, a high degree of trust and cooperation from all levels of the organization must be present. Increasing employee participation is the most lasting form of change and is necessary to attain complete cooperation to implement change.8 The professional climate must be positive toward change before a police agency attempts to enact major change.9

The data in this study indicate a desire on the part of the respondents to relinquish segments of certain seniority rights that could be the catalyst needed to begin the process of change. The data show a strong desire to replace seniority with performance standards for promotional and transfer opportunities. Involving officers in the change process could cultivate improved relations between line officers and their administrators. The data clearly show a desire by the officers to have input into their departments’ policies and decision making. The opportunity to pursue change has been confirmed by the data, but the process must be carried out in small increments with the highest level of integrity to foster long-term improvement in police operations.

These long-standing seniority practices have been the methods of operation for these police agencies for decades. As such, they have become ingrained into the very fabric of each agency's culture. Because some of the practices have been thought of as tradition, the level of acceptance for their continued utilization remains high. To change from this type of system would require a substantial overhaul of the organizational practices that currently exist. The amount of time and effort to work through this transformation would be a daunting task. It is much easier to live with the inadequacies of the status quo than it is to embark on change that is new to all concerned.

Many departments rely on seniority-based assignment to avoid the complications of a merit-based procedure. Often, a seniority system results in an acceptable officer being promoted or transferred, but it does not ensure that the best-qualified officer will get the assignment. It does, however, reduce some of the complaints and headaches for management. “Personally, I believe that it is management’s responsibility to do what is best for the organization rather than merely take the easy path,” said DeVere D. Woods Jr., PhD, Associate Professor, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Indiana State University and Advisor, CIRCIPOL (the research center for the National Police of El Salvador).10

Limitations of Study

This study has provided insight into the opinions that officers hold regarding seniority rights, officer performance, and career advancement. However, it is limited in its reliability to project the opinions gathered here to apply to all police agencies. These limitations include (1) the small geographic area in Michigan from where the data were derived; (2) the lack of diversity of the respondents, with the vast majority being white males; (3) the non-probability composition of the sampling group and lack of random selection; and (4) the 50 percent response rate of the total population asked to participate in the study.

The research started here reveals a need to continue on this path to improve police organizational operations. By discovering police officers’ true feelings regarding their careers and the departments they work for, study leaders can gain an understanding into the problems that exist in individual agencies. This information could prove invaluable in developing strategies to eliminate underlying issues that detract from the quality of an organization and its ability to deal with 21st century law enforcement priorities. The demands on police agencies continue to expand, requiring more efficient operation with regard to employee development and service provided to their communities. Additional research is needed to develop performance evaluation criteria that eliminate the subjective flaws inherent in current assessment instruments. The development of objective quantitative standards that can be applied to job performance is needed to overcome the mistrust between the evaluator and the evaluated. Once such a prototype has been developed, it would need to be adaptable to individual police agencies.

Benefit to Criminal Justice

The data derived by this study can be used as a starting point for police agencies that operate under a seniority rights culture to understand how their officers feel about such a system. They are valuable information to the administrators of police departments interested in improving employee relations. Such studies may uncover a morale problem not realized prior to these questions being asked. Additional studies may reveal, as these data did, high levels of frustration and dissention within the ranks as a result of seniority rights.

The results in this study revealed opportunities for improvement in managerial applications with regard to morale and job satisfaction. In addition, the data provide insight into what officers are willing to do personally to improve their worth to their departments if the rewards for doing so are present.

This study also can benefit union officials by illustrating what is desired by the officers they represent. The unions should become more involved with improving morale and the quality of the police agency. The results obtained in this research clearly demonstrate that officers want control over their careers and would prefer to have their performance be the determining factor for career advancement opportunities.

Key Points

Seniority rights remain a dominant standard for the determination of officer pay scale, shift selection, vacation selection, lateral transfer, and promotional ranking within the eight police departments that participated in this research. These standards have been in place for many years and have become the accepted method of operation for officers who are employed by these agencies. The acceptance of these procedures was made evident when 78.6 percent of the responding officers stated that they felt that the seniority practices of their department were fair.

As the questions asked became more specific, the data revealed areas in which the majority of the respondents did not favor seniority over performance as an outcome determinate. Specifically, these areas dealt with career advancement opportunities such as lateral transfer and promotional ranking. When asked about their career path, 86.5 percent of the officers stated they would prefer their performance to be more influential on their goals than their seniority.

Other areas explored in this study dealt with officer morale, interpersonal relationships, and attitudes about the administrators that lead these agencies. A large number of the respondents indicated frustration over seniority rights, and a majority felt that resentment over these rights had developed between officers. Also, in certain cases, a lack of trust was uncovered between the administration and line officers. A number of officers felt unequal treatment existed and that management did not have their best interests at heart.

While this study indicates a strong acceptance of seniority rights by the rank-and-file, the results also discovered the desire to limit their effect on areas of career advancement. The data show there are opportunities to make changes to the current long-standing seniority practices in certain areas. These opportunities can best be accomplished through collaboration between all levels of the organization. The trust issue must be improved to gain the cooperation of all concerned, leading to acceptance and implementation of change. If successful, these changes can improve officer morale, reduce inter-departmental strife, and improve the overall quality of the department.■


1Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1982).
2John S. Adams, “Toward an Understanding of Inequity,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 67 (1963): 422–436.
3Larry K. Gaines et al., Police Administration, 2nd ed., ed. Carolyn Henderson Meier (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003).
4Dennis Byrne, Hashem Dezhbakhsh, and Randall King, “Unions and Police Productivity: An Econometric Investigation,” Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society 35, no. 4 (1996): 566–584.
5Ronald Fischer and Peter B. Smith, “Values and Organizational Justice: Performance- and Seniority-Based Allocation Criteria in the United Kingdom and Germany,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 35 (2004): 669.
6James L. Medoff and Katharine G. Abraham, “Experience, Performance, and Earnings,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 95, no. 4 (1980): 703–736.
7Alison L. Booth and Jeff Frank, “Earnings, Productivity, and Performance-Related Pay,” Journal of Labor Economics 17, no. 3 (1999): 447–463.
8Gaines et al., Police Administration.
9Robert B. Duncan, “Organizational Climate and Climate for Change in Three Police Departments: Some Preliminary Findings,” Urban Affairs Quarterly 8 (1976): 205–245.
10DeVere D. Woods, Ph.D., spoken personal communication, November 27, 2007.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 6, June 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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