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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

When You Should Pay Your Dues—and When You Should Get a New Job ASAP

Four years ago, Stephanie Lang, 28, was psyched to land her first post-college job as an academic adviser at a large public university in Florida.

In her role she frequently counseled undergrads who hadn’t declared a major yet—and quickly determined that there had to be a more efficient way to pass along information than to field countless calls from clueless students.

So she came up with the idea to start a “Love Your Majors” fair, where representatives from various fields could directly answer students’ questions.

The problem? It had been attempted once—and only about 50 students showed up. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to put in the time on what had already been a failure.

But Lang believed she could pull it off. So she took ownership of the project and worked tirelessly for three months to get it off the ground—juggling a double workload in the lead-up to the fair, since she wasn’t relieved of her other duties.

It paid off: Close to 300 students attended, garnering Lang enthusiastic feedback from undergrads, her boss, and the department head. And she eventually leveraged the win to nab a better job.

“Taking on tasks that others don’t want to do will make you stand out,” Lang says. “And if you can produce results, you’ll be rewarded.”

But, depending on whom you ask, this attitude may be a relic of workplaces past.

According to a 2014 study by Bentley University, 70% of respondents in older generations believe that Millennials are not as willing to pay their dues—and 74% believe these young workers don’t have as strong a work ethic.

Meanwhile, Millennials polled don’t seem to equate paying dues with working hard: 89% believe they have a strong work ethic, but only 55% say they’re willing to pay their dues.

Which begs the question: Has the concept of paying your dues become an outdated work cliché? Or is a willingness to take on menial tasks still a relevant career to-do?

To get to the answer, we reached out to career experts to help us determine the true value of putting your nose to the grindstone in today’s workplace.

Why Time in the Trenches Can Help You Climb the Career Leader

When you’re in an entry-level job, it’s easy to feel frustrated by seemingly low-level tasks. But this isn’t just a time in your career to perfect your photocopying or coffee-making skills—this phase is also when you can learn the most.

“Since you’re not under pressure to perform, you can take a step back and use this as an opportunity to learn transferable skills from your superiors—from how to formulate a profit-and-loss sheet to speaking in public,” explains Alexandra Levit, author of Blind Spots: 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. “It gives you a chance to observe people who have been in the business a lot longer—without having to worry that you’re in over your head.”

In fact, taking on too much responsibility too soon can backfire.

Levit recalls working with one young client who proved excellent in sales, raking in bundles of money for her company. As a result, she thought she deserved to be promoted right away—and when it didn’t happen, she quit to start her own business.

She soon realized that being good in sales didn’t translate to being good at everything else—she lacked the financial, administrative, and managerial know-how to go it alone.

So while she could land client after client, without the proper skills in place to serve them, they’d quickly abandon ship.

“Many Millennials push for management positions immediately, and then fail because they haven’t accumulated enough experience or earned the respect of their co-workers,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends, an HR industry research and advisory firm. “To position yourself for long-term success, take your time and focus on moving horizontally—exploring different departments and office locations—instead of vertically up the ladder. Success doesn’t happen overnight.”

Ultimately, your time in the trenches could be what gets you noticed.

Five months after the majors fair, Lang accepted a new, higher-paying job as the coordinator of academic advisers at a large university—in part because she highlighted the project as an example of her project management skills and willingness to take calculated risks.

“I think paying your dues is worth it because hard work is rewarded,” Lang says. “I was willing to put in the time to do the grunt-work tasks in order to continue to move up the ladder.”

The Pitfalls of Paying Your Dues—Too Much

Despite the potential payoff, there is a real danger to biding your time doing humdrum work for too long: You could get trapped in a dead-end job.

That’s how Alice Kay, 34, felt during her early years working at various magazines in New York City.

Initially, Kay accepted the menial duties that came with being an entry-level editorial assistant, knowing tasks like arriving early to organize her boss’s desk were part of paying your dues in the industry.

“I jumped into it enthusiastically because, even if I felt like a secretary, I knew I would be learning along the way,” Kay says.

For instance, when going through her boss’s outbox, Kay would look at her edit notes so she could learn the tricks of the trade. Before long, she was writing a regular column and pitching cover lines.

So when Kay accepted a new job with a higher title at another magazine, she thought her gofer days were over. But instead of diving into real edit work, she was opening mail, grabbing endless Diet Cokes, and running personal errands for higher-ups.

Her low point came when she was asked to send a supervisor’s breast milk to her townhouse—and Kay had to beg the messenger center to accept the package, even though delivering body fluids was against company policy.

Kay endured this madness for three years. And although she highlighted her accomplishments at annual reviews, her requests to have secretarial duties relinquished were denied.

Looking back, Kay doesn’t think they had any intention of moving her—or any of the assistants—up. “I knew several very smart, talented, and hardworking women who left the industry because they got burned out,” says Kay, who ultimately left publishing for a job as a newscaster. “It was demoralizing.”

The good news, says Levit, is that Millennials tend to speak up more about mistreatment—which helps expose, and lessen, problematic corporate cultures.

“I’ve seen a decline in [abusive situations] since Millennials have flooded the ranks,” she says. “They aren’t afraid to say, ‘I don’t want to get coffee.’ They’ll say what others are thinking, and have power in numbers.”

So how can you make sure that you don’t end up getting taken advantage of?

“Ideally, you should try to assess a company’s intentions up front, in the interview stage,” Levit says.

Ask the hiring manager questions like, “Where did the last person in this position end up?” to gauge how quickly staffers advance. And inquire about opportunities to expand your skill set, such as whether the company offers tuition reimbursement or training. This will show how invested they are in employee development.

“Also keep in mind that different types of organizations tend to have different approaches,” adds Levit. “For example, startups will generally give you more responsibility out of the gate than established companies.”

Another thing to keep in mind? The more competitive the industry (think: publishing, entertainment, sports), the greater the chance is that you’ll be taken advantage of.

And once you’re on the job, set a series of goals to achieve with your manager—and be proactive about checking in with your boss as you reach them.

Ultimately, you want to have a clear sense of your trajectory for the next 12 to 18 months, so you can understand just where all of your work—the paying-your-dues variety included—is taking you.

And don’t be afraid to go above and beyond. For example, “Notice things your company could improve on—and create a plan to solve that problem,” Schawbel says. “Think outside of your job description and do more than what’s asked of you.”

As for advancement, don’t peace out prematurely if you don’t see movement right away. It’s unrealistic to expect to move ahead in the first year or two, but “if you haven’t been promoted after three years, and have been blocked at every turn,” Levit says, “you need to get out.”

And keep in mind that managers have plenty of experience when it comes to paying dues—and many probably prefer not to repeat the mistakes of their former superiors.

A mark of a good boss? If they do ask you to perform a seemingly menial task, they’ll take the time to explain how it fits into the business. For instance, logging line items into a spreadsheet isn’t just tedious work—it’s part of helping the company keep on track with budget goals.

“Once someone can understand the logic behind an approach,” Levit says, “they’ll respect you.”

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