Should seniority be the determining factor in promotion?

Is it time to give formal credit in the promotional process to additional educational qualifications asks Ciarán O’Neill.

The following is an extract from an article in the May edition of the Garda Review in 1931 entitled ‘Should seniority be the determining factor in promotion?’:

The thought of a Garda with a B.L. degree employed on the rather mechanical job of telephone switch operator came to my mind rather forcibly when reading a contribution to The Mercury by that very distinguished American author and critic, Mr HL Mencken, whose views are strongly supported in the editorial columns of that magazine.

Mr Mencken holds the basic cause of American Police incompetence is due to the fact that seniority gets preference over education in promotion. The following are extracts from his very contentious and scathing article:

“I saw them (the American police) fail in Court because of the very excess of their enthusiasm. No; what ailed these poor gendarmes was not corruption; they were in fact quite as honest as Collidge or Czolgosz. What ailed them was simply stupidity. They were too dumb for their jobs….. they were outwitted at every point and only too often retired from the combat with the foolish bewildered air of a dog that has tackled a Tom cat…

The rule almost everywhere in the country is that a recruit for the force must spend years pounding a beat before he is eligible to aspire to the higher ranks … First, he is examined by doctors to make sure that he is as strong as an ox, and then he is examined by other quacks to determine whether he can read or write.

The young man with intelligence enough to be a good detective simply refuses to waste the best years of his youth tagging automobiles parking in the wrong place… He declines to take orders from a Sergeant who in nine cases out of ten is an illiterate ignoramus, fit only for clubbing Communists and boozing in speakeasies.

The average detective is simply an ex-paperhanger or bar tender thrown into a job demanding five times the information and intelligence of a Harvard professor…

Is it any wonder that conscious of his incompetence and revolting against it, he resorts to such brutalities as the third degree to conceal it?”

It has been 90 years since this article was written and it makes one wonder if this is still the situation regarding promotions and is seniority still a determining factor? What has changed in the past 90 years? Thankfully, each new Garda recruit has to undergo a recognised level 7 degree as part of their Garda training so that author’s fears should be somewhat eased in today’s police force and there’s no need for a ‘quack’ to determine whether a police officer can read or write. Gardaí are openly encouraged to pursue further education and they can seek funding to support their educational costs. However, not all applicants are successful in receiving funding.

The promotions are now competency-based rather than solely on seniority, but there are still a few things that haven’t changed in the 90 years. To examine the original thought of a Garda with a BL degree, one has to ask what credit does that member get when he goes for promotion if he has a higher level degree than the initial degree in policing. The answer unfortunately is none. Yes, he can fill it in on his application form and try to highlight it in the interview but as the interviews are scored only on the competencies listed there is no measurable system which gives credit for furthering one’s education.

So, it now comes to the question of seniority and its relevance towards promotion. Based on a recent EU decision, the maximum age restriction has now been removed, or at least is in the course of being removed, and this allows for new garda recruits to be older and to have gained invaluable experience before joining and also allows for the possibility of external police experience. But are we still basing promotions on seniority? The answer is, in part, yes we are. A garda must serve at least three years before being eligible for promotion to sergeant, regardless of any previous policing experience they may have. A sergeant must have two years’ experience as a sergeant before they are eligible to apply for promotion to inspector. So, a garda recruit, regardless of qualifications or previous experience, must wait at least five years before being promoted to middle management levels and the Garda Code states that they must serve at least two years in the rank of inspector before applying for promotion to higher ranks.

After 90 years, has the question of whether seniority should be the determining factor in promotion been answered? The answer is that in part seniority is a determining factor but due to reforms and legislation it is not the determining factor. The Garda Inspectorate did look in 2018 at outside direct entry into supervisory roles in An Garda Síochána and while they recognise the experience of those persons outside of An Garda Síochána looking to get in, one does have to suggest that we could also look inwards and recognise our own staff and question the need for service restrictions – and give the formal credit to additional educational qualifications. GR

Ciarán O’Neill is a former President of the Garda Representative Association and is CEC Representative for the Special Detective Unit


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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