India is obsessed with seniority

EA Ramaswamy | Updated on January 16, 2018

Taken for granted: The superiority of the older one

There’s nothing to say age automatically means wisdom, yet we consistently genuflect to it. Isn’t capability more important?

Wisdom is a function of date of birth, or so we believe in this country. So deep and touching is our faith in seniority that it has assumed the proportions of a religious doctrine that requires no validation.

We have seen judges promoted as chief justices and generals appointed chiefs of staff months or even weeks before retirement. No finger is raised so long as the man standing first in the line is promoted. He is deemed to be the best man for the job because he was born a few weeks before the one standing next. Questioning his credentials borders on blasphemy. And the suggestion that someone further down the line may be better suited for the job invites righteous indignation.

Questionable outrage

The Opposition has latched on to this outdated dogma to flog the Government. It is outraged that the top job in the army has been handed to the third man in the queue.

While the Opposition is at liberty to use any means at its disposal to discredit the Government, there is no reason why we as a nation should genuflect before this dictum.

The supporters of seniority have exactly two arguments to back them. One is that expertise is proportionate to experience. This is a bland assertion unsubstantiated by evidence. Surely, it can be argued that those who have put in the most years are also the most rigid, least willing to experiment and least capable of lateral thinking.

The second is that any method of selection lends itself to manipulation. This can happen, but it would be absurd to argue that all selection is manipulative and promotion by seniority is, therefore, the best alternative.

Disastrous results

Seniority is at best non-controversial and at worst hugely dysfunctional. I would like to illustrate this with some of my own experiences.

The first is from Delhi University where I taught for many years. Until about the end of the 1970s, the university was overflowing with talent. Most departments were headed by professors of repute. They were natural leaders who cared for the assets under their charge — and that included faculty, students, labs, libraries and buildings. They were powerful, and some even autocratic.

No vice-chancellor could take them on. Perhaps to cut them to size, the university decided that headship would rotate among professors every three years, according to seniority.

What followed was a disaster. The job of appointing the head passed from the vice-chancellor to an assistant registrar. He had merely to see who was next in line and shoot off a letter. Appointing the head became a clerical job and the letter itself came to be couched in clerical language.

There were all kinds of professors in every department. Some were good researchers, some good teachers, some good administrators, and some not particularly good at anything.

The clerk who issued the letter neither knew nor cared about these niceties. He simply went by their date of birth. Every professor got his turn whether or not he wanted to be head. Some who were not respected either by students or by colleagues became heads of departments, with predictable consequences.

Leadership collapsed. The university went into a tailspin from which it has not recovered. Perhaps it never will.

Outlandish practice

The second is from my work as an HR consultant in the corporate sector. A pharma company decided that three out of every ten jobs in its forthcoming expansion project would be reserved for employees’ children.

Soon, some 250 applications poured in for the 20 jobs that were on offer. The management decided to put the applicants through a test. The union objected, but management went ahead. When the results were ready, they called the union for a meeting to which I was invited.

The union argued that the results had been manipulated to favour cronies. The only fair method, in their view, was selection on the basis of seniority. The parent’s date of birth, they said, ought to be the criterion.

The management was flabbergasted, as would any sensible person. To decide on the suitability of these young applicants on the basis of the parent’s date of birth seemed outlandish.

The management was interested in choosing the best manpower from the crop of 250. The union’s interests were entirely different. It did not care who was selected so long as there was no controversy. Selection based on date of birth was as objective as it could get although it might have saddled the company with an unsuitable workforce.

I think it was Northcote Parkinson who said there were two classic methods of choosing a civil servant. One was British and the other was Chinese. The British checked the aspirants’ social background. If your father or uncle was rear-admiral in the royal navy you got in, and if he was a fishmonger on Cheapside you got out. The Chinese picked the man who excelled in classical learning. Neither method had anything to do with civil service, but it didn’t matter.

We can add a third method which is truly Indian. It is seniority!

The writer is a labour relations and HR consultant

Published on December 23, 2016

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