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Don’t Pay Your Dues

Posted By Jim On 05/06/2008 @ 1:46 pm In Devil's Advocate | 14 Comments

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.


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