The stories abound…
…the new hire who blithely informs her manager (on her second day) that she’ll be leaving a few hours early for a spa appointment; the long-serving team member who won’t comply with new processes—and refuses to suggest improvements; the fellow who says thanks when his boss brings in coffee for the team one morning, but also advises he’d prefer a large instead of a medium next time—and he’s not joking. These are all variations on the same theme: employees exhibiting an inflated sense of entitlement, with behaviour ranging from rude and thoughtless to downright unprofessional.
How to know if you’ve got one
Characteristics of the overly-entitled employee include: a belief they deserve accolades and compensation that far outstrips their actual effort and accomplishments; an unwillingness to accept responsibility for their mistakes; and a resistance to direction or feedback. They frequently put their own interests and preferences ahead of the objectives of the team, and often ignore instructions from management.
Sometimes an inflated sense of entitlement masquerades as ambition. While ambitious employees have energy and drive that can be channeled in directions positive for their careers, the team, and the company, an employee with a misconception of their importance is a drain on everyone and usually sees themselves as too good for the job. A reluctance to accept accountability is another indicator.
Generation Y – those born between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s – are often characterized as the worst offenders. Because many were raised on excessive praise from Baby Boomer parents, so the theory goes, Generation Y contains a disproportionate number of individuals with a bloated sense of what they deserve. The truth is we can find individuals who think the world owes them everything across all age groups, just as we can find many reliable, hard-working, and talented members of Generation Y.
If not addressed, the actions (or inactions) of overly-entitled employees can cause a real issue when working with others. Because they’re resistant to direction, significantly more time and energy is required to manage their behaviour. Their inward focus can generate resentment among hard-working members of your team and in turn, negatively impact timelines and bottom lines. A 2013 study from the University of New Hampshire concluded that employees who “have a sense of unjustified entitlement” are also more likely to report their managers as abusive.
What to do if you’ve got one
You’ll have the best chance of a positive outcome if you address the problem early on. As with any employee who is underperforming or causing disruption, sit down with them and explain in a calm, firm manner how their actions are inappropriate or unacceptable. Have clear examples and stick to the facts, remain supportive and work through these next steps:
- Set clear and reasonable expectations for their performance.
- Review company guidelines and policies regarding time off, hours of work, accepted work practices, and expectations regarding interactions with others.
- Work with them to define specific, scheduled milestones. Make sure you both sign off on the plan.
- Meet regularly for a status update and document all conversations.
- Remark on any visible improvement, and continue to address areas requiring further effort.
When you first address the issue, the initial conversation can be very revealing. If you maintain a positive tone and ask open-ended questions, inviting your employee to come up with solutions or identify reasons for their behaviour, you’ll quickly learn if their actions stem from naive selfishness, a genuine lack of skill or experience, or a deeply entrenched attitude of entitlement.
When the employee is new to the workforce and inexperienced, for example, the conversation may serve as a constructive wake-up call, help realign their relationship with you and the team, and open opportunities for you to mentor them more closely or arrange appropriate training. Be prepared, however, that your conversation may be the first time anyone has challenged this aspect of their behaviour and the reaction might be one of disbelief or incredulity.
Or, you may discover that a more seasoned employee has hit a point in their life and career where they simply feel they deserve more. It can help to express recognition for their experience and invite them to share their insight, but you must also clearly communicate the ongoing level of productivity and cooperation expected. A change of assignments or invitation to participate in a special project may restart their interest.
If examples and experience reveal the entitled attitude is deeply entrenched and the employee’s performance isn’t improving, weigh the risks and benefits of continuing their employment. Do they contribute enough to justify the extra time and energy required to keep them on track? If their behaviour, combined with a lack of results, is an ongoing risk to the success of your organization and is affecting the rest of the team’s morale, you may need to consider termination. In such a case, it’s important to have clear examples of unsatisfactory work and a record of the actions taken to provide support and opportunity for improvement.
And when you’re interviewing for their replacement, always ask candidates to describe a significant failure in their lives and how they handled it. If they dodge the question, blame others, or don’t express personal responsibility, beware.