Our columnist looks at the incredibly slow changes happening in corporate culture — and how (and when) to stand up for yourself.
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Ask Lizzie: How Do I Know If I’m “Paying My Dues” or “Getting Taken Advantage of”?

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Dear Lizzie,

I need your help. I’m 28, and I’ve been at my job for three years. It’s a good job, but I often feel like people who are older than I am want me to “pay my dues.” That seems to mean everything from working on their projects instead of pitching my own, to running the calendar, to being quiet in meetings, even when I might have a better idea than what’s being discussed. Should I give in? Or should I let them know that the world has changed and I don’t have to slog through the same toxic corporate culture just because they did?

Help.

Am I an Entitled Youth? in Edmonton

Dear Entitled,

Ooooohhhh the feelings I am having reading this letter! I am awash in them. Shame, regret, pride — really all over the map.

Willa Cather famously wrote that “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” I think the same applies to the world of work, and you’ve laid out one of the biggies: young employee, full of beans, encounters The System.

Before I answer your question, I want to share an anecdote from the early part of my career. I was probably 27 or 28, working for National Public Radio as an editorial assistant. That meant that I helped find guests for the hosts of All Things Considered to interview. The job was a curious blend of tedium (lots of making phone calls, note-taking, and filling out forms) and responsibility (my judgment about potential guests was somehow terrifyingly important).

I had a few years of experience under my belt. I had recently graduated from journalism school, where I lapped up praise like a puppy, and generally fancied myself hot shit. One night, I went over to my mom’s house for dinner. She had some friends there, and as we sat around chatting, I complained. I bemoaned some stupid idea someone had pitched in an editorial meeting, the menial tasks I had to perform, the way people just didn’t see my potential. I was insufferable, I’m sure, and my mother’s friend called me on it. He was an older man with a lot of experience in the working world, and he said I was being a bit of a brat. I was mortified.

Almost twenty years later, I want to slap my young self, but I also want to correct that man. While he was right about the brat part, the way he thought about work was reflective of a patriarchal model worth leaving behind. One where the bosses (usually white men) told lower-ranking and younger people (and women and people of colour) what to do, and they did it, no questions asked. I think that society has made some small progress on shaking parts of this off. There’s a small but growing recognition, buoyed in part by a strong job market, that workers should have power. And that no one should put up with abuses of the past. But there’s also been a welling of resentment from the olds (or just people my age!) about how the youngsters are spoiled and entitled.

For a little more insight on dues paying and how much of it’s actually important, I reached out to Alison Green, the writer behind the priceless website and book, Ask A Manager. The first thing Alison made clear to me is that you should not accept toxic behaviour. (Thinking of you, TV producer who once threw a pencil at my head!) Making new employees suffer simply because previous ones did is ridiculous and cruel, but part of the difficulty of being new is not knowing whether something is ridiculous or not.

But she also told me that some forms of dues paying can be appropriate. ​”You’re going to get stuck working late sometimes while your boss goes home because your boss’s time is worth more in real dollars to the company,” Alison says. “Or because it’s in the company’s interests for your boss to disconnect so she can come back refreshed for a high-profile meeting in the morning.” It’s all about your relative value to an organization. It’s important to realize that being asked to do tasks you find mundane can feel like a painful, personal affront, a harsh judgement on your talent or value. Don’t let it. More often than not, it’s not a referendum on you — or your potential – it’s just where you are in your career.

Knowing where the line is can be extremely hard. To help you know when to speak up or how to put your own ideas forward, Alison suggests seeking out mentors at work. They can advise you on ways to get the best results — like, say, not accidentally pitching a new project when your manager’s hands are already full. Also, if your workplace has employee affinity groups, she suggests running ideas and situations by them. It’s a great gut check. This is especially useful for women and other underrepresented groups who might be more likely to have their voices ignored.

The tricky thing is knowing when and how to speak up. I have worked in environments where tasks like picking up the boss’s dry cleaning occasionally fell to underlings. Which is not appropriate. I think a helpful script in a scenario like that might be “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.” or “I’m not comfortable with x.” You might be able to then start a conversation about what sort of thing is expected of you. Another way to handle that is a redirect. “I’m happy to help with x, y or z related to the presentation.” You want to be perceived as someone who wants to do the actual work.

I would also note that now that I’m older, and more experienced, I’ve come to appreciate the way my younger colleagues stand up for themselves.

Alison Green also had one other tip that I found helpful. As hard as it may seem, she says, don’t try to fight every battle. You’ll only dilute your message. As a younger reporter, I thought being right on an issue was the only important thing. I could have benefitted from keeping my powder dry a few more times than I did, saving my indignation for moments that truly mattered. Remember: your power is most potent when it is preserved and concentrated.

And I do think there’s a march toward progress happening here. Although work culture has been — for a looong time — not very diverse, that’s changing. It’s changing slowly, but at least it’s changing. And while you might have to pay a few dues, with the recent shift toward worker rights and people’s willingness to leave jobs in search of better opportunities, it’s also incumbent on your workplace to keep you satisfied. They need to provide you with chances to grow and learn. That is something that is very much within your rights as an employee to ask for. You will be anything but a brat.

All the best,

Lizzie

Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast “What Next: TBD” at Slate.

Money Diaries

"MY UNDERGRADUATE ADVISER TOLD ME I SHOULD JUST FORGET ABOUT THE WHOLE WRITING THING. ‘YOU SHOULD FIND A GOOD MAN AND GET MARRIED,’ HE TOLD ME."

Margaret Atwood

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