The Peter Principle
How does it happen?
Dr. Peter's major error
Fire him? Never!
Excerpted from September 1997 issue
It would be nice if the Peter Principle were an accurate description, but it fails in the cases with the greatest impact. The error was noticed by Professor Edward T. Pitkin as soon as The Peter Principle was published. Mere incompetence could hardly be the explanation for the numerous department heads, deans, associate deans, directors, provosts, presidents, vice presidents, and assistants-to in his acquaintance (or ours).
The Peter Principle applies to a great many people, but to relatively static jobs. For example, a good clerk may reach his level of incompetence when promoted to manager of clerks. Pitkin's Postulate is the dynamic extension to the Peter Principle: it includes the most "important" jobs, those whose holders are in a position to do colossal damage.
I recall an incident when a director received a letter from somebody he intensely disliked, asking for a recommendation for an individual whom the director wanted to fire, but could not because of a clause in the man's contract requiring a year's pay with full benefits. Gleefully, he wrote a beautiful-sounding letter with meaningless praise --- "Mr. So-and-so came to us with excellent credentials--- He was here during a period of great expansion---," and before long the man was no longer on the payroll. It was all very funny, but the director himself was already a few notches above his own level of incompetence. If the Peter Principle were true, the director would still be at the bench trying to tin his soldering iron, and the man for whom he wrote such wonderful prose would be pushing a broom.
How does it happen that such people get beyond their level of incompetence? Here is Professor Pitkin's explanation:
If somebody approaches his level of incompetence with enough speed, he will tunnel through the barrier, and thereafter encounter negative resistance.The sooner a Pitkin's Piker shows his incompetence, the sooner he is given glowing letters of recommendation for yet a higher salary --- somewhere else. Once he's above his level of incompetence, rising higher becomes a routine reward.
A committee that hires a Pitkin's Piker reads the glowing letters of recommendation from his current place of employment, but never has the sense to ask a few questions at his previous place of employment. They will offer a premium salary and contract stipulating that in event of termination, he is entitled to a year's salary and benefits. No self- respecting hiring committee could offer less than that to a promising individual with such marvelous letters of recommendation.
To fire a Pitkin's Piker --- when he inevitable fails at his job --- becomes expensive. Besides, it reflects poorly on the judgment of the hiring committee (who are Pitkin's Pikers themselves) who hired a dud. It is much cheaper and safer to ask for a letter of resignation, promising glowing letters of recommendation.
Now that the Pitkin's Piker is out the door, the hiring committee looks for a replacement and starts reading letters of recommendation. They'll choose the candidate with the most experience --- the one with longest list of places that hurried him out the door.
Professor Pitkin says that the landscape is littered with Pikers who have loused up at his institution and moved on to better jobs at higher pay --- up the ladder or elsewhere --- where they have subsequently failed and moved on to fail at yet higher salaries. Unfortunately, there isn't enough room in this newsletter to list them by name.
Besides, you know your own examples.