Why Should Employees Have To Pay Their Dues?

“Before he can become a [insert desired role here] he has to pay his dues, just like I did.” Have you heard this point of view? I’ve heard it my entire career. It’s high time to evolve our thinking, to leave this point of view behind.

The phraseology indicates that the dues-paying activities are a sort of penance — nothing more than a cost to the employee of pursuing a particular career goal. If a person isn’t willing to go through this experience they’re not worthy. They don’t want it enough. This reminds me of fraternity initiations.

Many valuable activities are unpleasant. When I was a law student, during class a professor would call on a student, who would stand to answer the professor’s questions. Trust me when I tell you this was no fun at all. It was a withering cross-examination. And I couldn’t see how it contributed to our learning. But it was universally accepted as a right of passage. So one day I asked Professor Gordon why he was doing this. He replied that judges would do this and worse in court, and our professors had three years to get us accustomed to performing with excellence when being treated this way in public.

That explanation made a lot of sense to me. There was a point to the activity. It wasn’t just a right of passage. We weren’t just learning the law; we were learning to be lawyers.

In many cases, a leader wants someone to pay their dues simply because the leader had to do that earlier in his career. That’s a terrible reason. If that’s your justification, break the cycle. Stop it.

If you’re requiring employees to pay their dues before progressing in their careers, I encourage you to answer the question, “Why is this a valuable investment of their time?” And please give a better answer than, “It builds character.” Life is full of character-building experiences. Nobody needs you to manufacture additional ones.

I’d like to distinguish mere “dues paying” activities from starting at the bottom and working one’s way up. Starting at the bottom can deliver great value in terms of learning, empathy and perspective. So I’m very much in favor of making people start at the bottom – if it’s for the right reasons.

If a required assignment is just a right of passage, get rid of it. Find a more valuable way to invest that person’s time. Let’s quit making people pay their dues.

Thanks for reading. As usual, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

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