Leadership advice

The danger of “paying your dues”

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

What does “paying your dues” mean in your newsroom, especially when it comes to hiring and promotions? 

It’s customarily shorthand for “becoming qualified.”

  • For the job.
  • For the cool assignment.
  • For advancement.

But here’s a very troubling truth: When people create job descriptions and hiring criteria –  supposedly objective standards – they’re influenced by personal experiences. Managers view their beliefs and behaviors as a baseline measuring stick.

  • “I had to move halfway across the country to a small market to get my start in the business.”
  • “I didn’t become a really good writer until I was five years into my beat.”
  • “Nobody sent me for database training, so I taught myself.”
  • “I would never have dreamed of asking for a promotion when I was in the job for only a year.”
  • “I worked on my days off to get the edge on big stories and never put in for overtime.”
  • “I didn’t socialize with my competitors; my goal was to beat them.”

People with the power to stamp “paid” on dues often reserve it for people who remind them of themselves. 

It’s called the Similarity-Attraction Effect. We are drawn to people who are like us. 

Think of the implications for diversity. 

What happens when our self-image is reflected in the job qualifications we establish? How we interview. How we choose winners, runners-up, and losers.

Lauren Rivera of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business studies hiring practices. Researching an organization’s process, she found this: 

“After carefully transcribing and analyzing her interviews and field notes from observations in the firm, Rivera determined that, by the time a candidate had made it through the relevant resume screenings and landed an interview, her evaluation was not necessarily based on ‘maximizing skill—finding the person who was absolutely best at the soft or the hard dimensions of the job,’ as Rivera puts it. Rather, the most common mechanism by which a candidate was evaluated was her similarity to her interviewer.”

Newsrooms reckoning with their failure to diversify have plenty of work to do. 

How about a candid, critical look at what “paying your dues” really means on your watch? 

What’s dated? What’s damaging to people? What’s built on a heaping pile of privilege?

It’s going to be an uncomfortable exercise.

That’s the point.

Click here to read Jill’s previous posts. Click here to subscribe to Covering Coronavirus.


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