Upward mobility

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The world around me

“The best available definition of merit has been “how much your boss likes you”

(Butler, 1989, p. 219).

The journey that led to the research and results presented before you began when I was just a teenager.  The nest where I was born into was a military one, the Royal Dutch Navy to be more precise. In this setting I was fascinated by the fact that my father every few years added some gold to his sleeve and was addressed differently. It can be said that the Royal Dutch Navy is characterised by a relative static culture and tradition in which seniority means experience and understanding of these traditions. According to the concept of seniority, promotion and compensation of employees is primarily determined by length of employment instead of individual performance. Seniority-based practices that traditionally tied workers to organisations make jobs more valuable to workers over time, motivating them to contribute more than the present value of their compensation in anticipation of higher future wages (Lazear, 1981). Insko et al. (1982) provided three reasons why seniority rules in organisations might develop. First, seniority ensures that the most experienced members will be selected and retained. Second, rewarding seniority ensures that older members with a high degree of social familiarity are retained compared with younger members or strangers with lesser familiarity (e.g., old boy networks). Third, seniority is likely to reduce conflict because it allows all members potential access to higher positions. Therefore, seniority is both an egalitarian as well as a differential allocation principle (Martin&Harder, 1994). It is differential because it is tied to individual differences, and individuals are not treated equally. However, seniority is egalitarian because employees can decide to stay within an organisation and gain greater seniority in the long run. Allocating rewards to more senior employees communicates to employees that their long-term contribution and loyalty to the organisation is valued.

Thus, the person who is best suited for a position is who would contribute most to the organisation. “Past performance is not the basis of desert, but rather a source of evidence about who is now deserving” (Miller 1999). Determining how past accomplishments relate to future success complicates this model, however, in the absence of other means to estimate future performance, organisations continue to rely upon credentials and prior accomplishments can be regarded as the equivalent of merit. So nothing unusual to promote certain years because the experience guarantees a more or less adequate fulfilment of the new role at a higher level.

However, as my father progressed through the ranks the positions increasingly differentiated and were not uniform anymore, all criteria to apply seniority as criterion for promotion and so the organisational rules changed. The organisation demanded he now had to study and pass exams in order to rise to the next level. He faced what Caplov (1954) 106-113 describes as a dilemma of choice between seniority and capacity. Through training my father acquired the skills of the higher ranked position, but not alone through skill training programmes. He also needed to adopt the culture that characterises a position and all kinds of normative behaviour that are only indirectly linked to technical competence. Merton (1957) 265-268 calls this anticipatory socialisation, learning the customs and the right mentality of a role to enhance the likelihood to obtain that position. People who are likely to execute a position in the right way, i.e. in the way as perceived by management, will be promoted. When the views of the candidate and management are aligned as to how a role is to be performed, cooperation and mutual sympathy will increase. The better the educational results, which are an indication of the formal transfer of culture, and the better the impression of attitude and presentation, which are indications of informal transfer of culture, the greater the change of promotion.

After passing a few exams this source for promotion also dried out, he now arrived at the door of management, which opened through promotion by choice (not his choice). In management positions knowledge of precedents and traditions is less relevant than the capacity to take decisions and to substitute old rules by new ones. Selection decisions are influenced by position requirements along with the fit of the candidate with those requirements (Guthrie & Datta, 1997).  The need for capable officers on responsible posts forces an organisation to promote with priority those officers who can improvise and have organisational skills for example. The management function “is looked upon as clearly differentiated from organisation work in general and is expressed as equally important or more important than the organisation in its entirety, i.e. “the work carried out by 95-99% of the personnel who do not belong to the management” (Alvesson, 1987: 160).

The executive elite is segmented from people in general by their special education, training, and psychological nature. “Business leaders possess special personal qualities which make them more “holistic” in their thinking, strength of will, capable of bringing out “the best” in their subordinates or quite simply more “charismatic” than people who do not reach higher management positions in their careers, all according to the elitist ideology” (Alvesson, 1987: 161). Arriving at the hierarchical position with less specific requirements and which assume high levels of decision-making and initiative it was no longer enough to do the job for years or to pass your exams. Something else was required. A choice was made on other than objective criteria to select the best for the job. It is more difficult to specify exactly what the job is as you go higher in the organization (Sorcher, 1985), but a better understanding of the job is needed to know how the selection process should proceed (Hollenbeck, 1994).  Peculiar is the application of informal ill-defined selection criteria to the top ranking positions within an organisational hierarchy. Where it is common to define the criteria for a position as a train driver or a tax inspector, it is perfectly acceptable to find no clues as to the requirements for a chief executive officer or a cabinet minister.

It is the “something else” that intrigues me and is the basis for my enquiry.

The world around us

Up to here upward mobility could be characterised as based on merit: by achieving exams and diplomas and actual performance. In an organisation where people rise by merit, the differences between them continually shrink. First the downright poor performers are removed. Then the marginal and unsatisfactory ones are left behind. Next to be surpassed are the average performers, then the above average ones. Finally, somewhere around the boundary between upper middle management and higher management level, all that is left are the truly outstanding people, but the currency suddenly changes. Merit no longer discriminates between these people effectively. The precise point of the change varies between organisations. Sometimes it is right at the step up to senior management level; sometimes a few ranks lower. Wherever it is, the change is invisible and rarely, if ever, acknowledged openly. The need to discriminate remains and if one set of values no longer serves to discriminate, others are applied. Salaman (1979) argues that notwithstanding the apparently rigorous and systematic nature of organisational selection procedures, organisations ultimately evaluate candidates on the basis of normative and attitudinal criteria rather than their technical skills. Jackall (1988) likewise asserts that most managers see social criteria and subjective judgments made by superiors about what they like in others as the key determinants of promotion. Research also suggests that social networks and sponsorship from higher-level managers is more important than merit for attaining higher-level managerial positions (Burt 1998; Jackall 1987; Kanter 1977; Lin 2001). Powerful leaders have a great deal of influence in determining who succeeds them (Cannella & Shen, 2001) and when they do give up their positions, they often select someone similar to succeed them, thus insuring the continuation of the incumbent's strategies. Perhaps this is due to the more or less incidental characteristics that high-ranking positions require. It is impossible to catch these roles, which are often unique in a standard formula because personal and commercial factors can change rapidly. Thus, the recruitment or promotion procedures at the higher level of an organisation are both perceived as mysterious and, to some degree, spurious. They are considered mysterious since junior staff cannot find a pattern in who will be promoted and who will not. They can be considered spurious since they will not include the best people anyway.

While merit criteria are deemed important in the allocation of occupational positions, non-merit criteria also have a significant role, as the Royal Dutch Navy shows with its seniority based non-merit system or patronage whereby senior incumbents favour persons of similar background and upbringing. Seldom has the merit principle been free from an encroaching distortion. Certain abilities and motivations may be useful in the particular occupational context as well as meritocratic criteria and thus organisations may have a number of hybrid appointments in which merit, defined by achieved characteristics is accompanied by subjective, sometimes political judgments. As Weber (1964) noted in his analysis of bureaucracy, promotion is dependent on the judgment of superiors and the judgement of peers may not always be guided by technical ability. In hybrid appointments merit is a necessary but insufficient condition for appointment. The use of non-meritocratic, ascribed criteria namely, reputation, social credentials, and patronage to judge the suitability of an individual for a particular job remains a significant part of the recruitment process and is at least as important as ability (Mayhew 1968). There are three reasons for this: first, assessments of ability are highly subjective and discretionary; second, administrative work requires trustworthiness and social skills as well as purely technical competence; and third, reciprocal dependence relationships between superiors and subordinates generate patron-client relationships. These factors taken collectively entail that people obtain promotion not simply on account of their ability but also because they possess a good reputation, desirable social attributes, and favourable social connections (Matheson, 1999).

Seemingly irrelevant personal characteristics, including beauty, height, obesity, and even whether one keeps a clean house, may influence ones potential for upward mobility. Jackall (1988) calls this a person”s “public face”. This incorporates “external appearance, modes of self-presentation, interactional behaviour, [and] projection of general attitude.”  As Goffman (1969, pp. 13-14) observed, the fact that many aspects of an individual”s behaviour are unobservable means that people make inferences about the unobservable aspects of a person”s behaviour on the basis of what is observable.  In some cases, ascription is directly relevant to job performance: who you are shapes what you can do (Wilensky and Lawrence, 1979). This is what Jenkins (1986) sees as the distinction between acceptability as whether or not an individual will “fit in” to the networks and relationships of the organisation, or be the right “kind of person” in general. Suitability emphasises achieved or acquired characteristics relating to “what you are”” This is typically a matter of competence. Being identified as the most suitable person for a position does not guarantee recruitment to it. Questions of acceptability concerning the individual and the idiosyncratic may become influential. And both suitability and acceptability offer a basis for competitive recruitment. Researching these two concepts also evidence that acceptability criteria frequently outweigh suitability criteria in the allocation of employment opportunities (Belbin, 1993). In hybrid appointments both criteria are influential allowing for permutations: individuals may be suitable but unacceptable, or vice versa.

Keeping management positions in the hands of the same kind of people provides reinforcement for the belief that people like us deserve to have such authority. The requirement for trust and the subjective nature of staff evaluation lead organisational elites to recruit those whose social attributes most closely matches their own. Relative mobility ratios show that the business elite has become increasingly homogenous, contrary to what might be expected from a century and a half of social, economic, and structural change (Nicholas, 1999). The need for trustworthiness and cooperativeness in high-discretion jobs means that peer acceptance and social conformity become important selection criteria, as Kanter (1977) noted. This is what Kanter calls “homosocial reproduction”, a form of in-group network sponsorship where participants share important ascribed characteristics with most of their superiors. The presence of these intersecting characteristics facilitates in-group favouritism and mentorship bonds while also solidifying mutual trust and loyalty between many aspirants and their superiors. So management positions again become easily closed to people who are “different” (pp. 62-63).Wilenski and Yerbury (1983) noted that “merit at senior levels is very much a matter for subjective judgment, there is then a tendency for permanent heads to promote into the senior ranks of their departments officers in their own image” (p. 160). Homosocial reproduction within organisations has traditionally taken the form of patronage or staffing on the basis of personal connections such as kinship, friendship, and ties of loyalty. Patronage refers to appointment on the basis of personal and or political connections. Patronage is common at senior levels because the work there requires a high level of cooperation and therefore of personal compatibility (Hyslop, 1993). This normally occurs in superior-subordinate relationships because superiors rely on their subordinates to expedite work and because subordinates need to obtain favourable references to be promoted. Patronage is a product of this mutual dependence.


The existing conceptual and theoretical models of upward mobility generate questions that give hints as to which framework may be the most plausible. For instance, is upward mobility more a function of readily observable characteristics, such as education, or of characteristics that are more difficult to observe, such as ability or social background? Does upward mobility differ with the level in the hierarchy?

This seemingly contradictory co-existence between merit and non-merit based upward mobility raises also other important questions: is there a hierarchical ceiling to merit and non-merit based promotions? How do promotions beyond that level take place i.e. does non-merit take over from merit at a certain hierarchical level and if so at what level? Or, are merit and non-merit promotions interchangeable at every hierarchical level? The question of who gets which jobs, and why - and who fails to achieve the employment they aspire to is crucial to understanding subsequent inequality in employment outcomes.

Is there an impermeable barrier that blocks the vertical mobility: below this barrier, people are able to get promoted on merit; beyond this barrier, they hit an invisible barrier that blocks any further upward movement. Does this barrier rise systematically as one move up the hierarchy?

If the meritocratic character of the promotion structure is nullified, due to the lack of advancement above a certain hierarchical level this proposed study should provide an initial attempt to identify the existence of non-merirtocratic barriers and the hierarchical level beyond which merit and non-merit promotions are not interchangeable? Perhaps each hierarchical level is meritocratic in itself, but if so, can that be morally justified?

Some notion of moral relevance or of just and unjust inequalities lies at the heart of any concrete opportunity principle. This is relevant here because of its emphasis upon access for all to fair competitive organisational advancement. From the point of view of the promotion of equality of opportunity, ascriptive criteria or criteria of acceptability require special justification. In highly stratified societies such as ours, limited aspirations, capacities, and achievements tend to be ascribed primarily to the failings of individuals themselves and not to the suppressive effects of socioeconomic barriers (Arrow et al., 2000; Sennet & Cobb, 1972). Oppressive societal conditions are ignored or, when recognised at all, accepted as the natural effects of Darwinian processes. They are not viewed as the results of socio-political choices made by those who inherit and hoard power. Tacit acceptance of socioeconomic barriers especially prevails today given the unchecked expansion and dominance of capitalist ideology throughout the world (Galbraith, 1996; Heilbroner, 1993; Luttwak, 1999; McMurtry, 1999).