Devil's Advocate 

Don’t Pay Your Dues

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This is a Devil's Advocate post.

A lot of young professionals hear this line all the time: “If you pay your dues, you will be rewarded by the company in the future.” Sometimes “paying your dues” refers to working your ass off for a few years, being a high performer, then getting rewarded with greater opportunities. That’s the good kind of “paying your dues.” The “paying your dues” I’m going to rail against today is the one where you basically work the grind, day in and day out, until you’ve been with a company long enough to be entrusted with more responsibility. That’s promotion based on tenure, not based on merit. That type of “paying your dues” is crap and here’s why you want to get out now.

As an aside, I always thought of my 20’s as the years where I was going to work myself as hard as possible in order to get as far ahead as possible, i.e. promotion based on merit. Then, in my 30’s and beyond, I could slow down at work and focus on my family and personal life (that mostly means kids). So, being stuck in a ‘promotion based on tenure’ company just wasn’t going to work for me in my 20’s, but was probably going to be ideal for my 30’s and beyond. There’s nothing wrong with coasting along, you aren’t any better or worse than those hard-charging workaholics, but you just have to get in the right place for it.

Anyway, here’s why you have to quickly identify where you’re at and why promotion by tenure is a joke.

Your Job Isn’t Prison

You know where else you get rewarded for biding your time, treading water, and not making waves trying to get ahead? Prison. Life is about setting your goals and taking the steps you need to in order to achieve them. Where in the Guidebook of Life does it say “pay your dues and wait for someone to give you your prize?” If you said “nowhere,” then you’re right, that’s not in the Guidebook of Life. Prison rewards good behavior and good behavior is keeping your mouth shut.

Work Hard, Get Rewarded

If you want to get ahead based on your merits and your ability, you need to find a place that will reward you for that. If the company you work for only offers opportunities based on time served, it’s best to identify that quickly and get out. There are plenty of companies that will reward you based on your performance, as many as those that will reward you based on tenure, so find the ones that match up with what you’re looking for. If you don’t, you’ll burn yourself out for nothing. You won’t even last long enough to be rewarded for just being a warm body!

You Won’t Be There Long Enough

If you’re a young professional, the probability you’ll be with any one company for more than ten years is remote. Five years, especially in this era, is difficult. At my first employer, I can count a dozen people who started with me who lasted fewer than three years (I was one of them). If you count the whole young professional/rotational program group, plus or minus a year in start time, that list, as of a year and a half ago, was around a hundred employees. A hundred new hires between 2002-2004 (I started in 2003), left the company. That’s not anything special, that’s just how things are. When hard work isn’t rewarded, hard workers find ways to reward themselves.

Opportunities Abound!

Chances are, within 3-5 years at any one company, you’ll want to put yourself out there on the market to see if you’re still being paid a fair rate. At that time, if your performance and ability are such that you can command a higher salary, you probably will be put into greater leadership positions. If your current company hasn’t already offered you those opportunities and you’re in one of your promotion by tenure companies, you can’t get them to match another offer and give you a promotion. Here’s why.

If you are at a company with a culture of promotion based on tenure, how will it be viewed by others if you are promoted above them and they’ve been there longer? I think you know where I’m going. If you’re a strong performer and that’s rewarded in the company, then people will recognize your performance and listen to what you have to say, even if they’ve been there longer.

Life Is Short

Life is too short to be wasting it “paying your dues.” Paying your dues is what someone says when they’re doing something they don’t like doing. Think about that one. 🙂

{ 14 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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14 Responses to “Don’t Pay Your Dues”

  1. Are you sure you meant to write this as a Devil’s Advocate post? It doesn’t have the feel of one from my point of view.

  2. jim says:

    Yes I did, only because “paying your dues” seems to be a rite of passage in some companies and a young professional, new to the workforce, might think that it’s like that everywhere. I know what you mean though, it’s less “DA” as some other ones.

  3. I took this advice and found a new job!!

  4. I agree with the premise that unrewarded work should make you look for employment elsewhere, but what I run into on a daily basis are people who’ve been with my company for less than a year and think because they pulled off one good feat, “deserve” a huge raise, a company car, an expense account, and their own store. There is something to be said for “seasoning” a person.

    Sometimes it isn’t a matter of tenure, it’s a matter of maturity. Unfortunately they sometimes DO go together and those who have only a little of each get upset.

  5. Tom says:

    For me, a newer college grad (3 years ago), this is not a Devil’s Advocate post. This seems to be inline with exactly what we, Gen Y, are doing. We are working our asses off for a couple years at one company and jumping back in the job market. We may change positions within the company, but more often than not, we will change companies. I did the latter, worked at one job for 2 years, then transfered w/in my company to a new job and location. This gives us a more diverse skill base, and when we do settle down, it’ll be for the long haul in a job we really enjoy.

  6. Dave says:

    Overall, I feel strongly that a company (especially a smaller company) employing “advancement by tenure” will unavoidably breed an undesirable culture.

    At my previous employer (<250 FTEs), this was evident at the bottom as well as the top… where leadership was leadership simply b/c they never left (despite sometimes being inadequate) and top analysts quickly became jaded and lacking in motivation after learning/realizing that they would be promoted with their “class” despite their out-performance.

    Even though I garnered tremendous experience in 2 years by working my tail off, the culture cultivated there made it at the expense of my happiness and overall well being.. so anyone in such an environment may well do themselves a favor by extricating themselves!

  7. A ready example of the “undesirable culture” Dave talked about in the last comment is many facets of government work. I’ve worked as a vendor to schools in the Las Vegas area; where leadership positions were often filled based upon the vacuum created by a fast growing market, rather than advancement thru a meritocracy. This resulted in many “dictatorships” that left teachers applying at different schools; it could get ugly.

    Here is a chapter from a new book (In The Event Of My Untimely Demise) that really captures the essence of what Ron was talking about, above; namely balance between merit and experience:

    As always, it comes down to the value of all parties involved. Little or no value, little or no money in little or no pockets. Conveyance of the value provided is also something to keep in mind.

    –Dave Charbonneau

  8. squawkfox says:

    Dave: You are so right. “Advancement by tenure” can indeed breed an undesirable culture. When a company is full of 15+ year employees, it’s impossible as a newer hire to ever become senior and see some benefit. I wish the culture could be extracted.

  9. Kamantha says:

    At my workplace, you cant get promoted unless someone dies, or retires (or unless you magically get a law degree). So how I counteract that reality is by going back to grad school and using the “downtime” at work to study. Bidding my time means to me going back to school, graduating and then leaving.

  10. Gary says:

    Truer words have never been spoken. There is no one who lies on their death bed and says “I wish I had spent more time at the office”. I “paid my dues” for 35 years and one of the world’s largest corporations had a “reduction in force” RIF vs. RIP recently. Almost all the participants in a Defined Benefit Pension Plan that closed enrollment a decade ago were shown the door, including me.

    The company saved themselves from having to make a “lump sum” distribution to me at age 65 well north of $500,000. Now I will get monthly annuity payments of a little over $1,000 a month with rights of survivorship. This is my reward for years of “hard work, overtime and dedication” to the company.

    If I were starting out again in my 20’s I would pursue every dream I ever had and live life to the fullest. In the 70’s we were still tied to conventions, tied to the “promise of the big corporation” and “upward mobility”. It doesn’t matter whether you “keep up with the Jones” because they are worried about keeping up with you. People would be surprised how little other people think about you or what they think about you. They are worried about their own problems.

    Enjoy life to the fullest, use your creativity and energy to chart your own path. You will make mistakes, get hard knocks and bruises, but don’t lock yourself in a “prison cell” to placate some “responsibility”. I can’t tell you the number of times that when people at work asked me how I was doing I would answer “just respecting the pay check”….. it’s no way to live folks. Be wiser than me.

  11. Shanti says:

    Now THIS is a brilliant post! Yes!

  12. thomas says:

    I think a big problem today is that the latest generation expects everything yesterday. In one word, these college kids are spoiled. I think you have to bust your ass in the beginning to prove your worth. I hear people complaining about their jobs and how they don’t get the rewards they feel entitled to receive. But the truth is, they haven’t worked for it. The expectation is that “hey, I’ve been here a year, I deserve this.” but haven’t earned it.

    I am by no means advocating working your fingers to the bone for the same company to not be rewarded, however there is a certain level of give and take in these relationships. You aren’t special until you prove you are special. bitching and moaning on the sidelines and blaming “the system” for your lack of growth is your problem, not anyone elses.

  13. Steve says:

    Gary, well put. The best advice I’ve received in a while.

  14. katy says:

    thank you, Gary.

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