Understanding entitlement mentality (Toughest HR Question)

Entitlement can have different connotations in different settings
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/15/2011

Question: How do you deal with employees who have an entitlement mentality?

Answer: The answer largely depends on what you mean by “entitlement,” which can have slightly different connotations in different organizational settings. Since the causes of an entitlement mentality vary to some extent, so too do the solutions.

It’s also worth doing some soul-searching to figure out whether the workforce actually does have an entitlement mentality or if this is just an excuse for an employer to save money by inflicting austerity measures on employees. In most cases, that won’t cut it with today’s workforce.

The attitude shouldn’t be, “They expect pension plans, benefits, raises, training and development, a pleasant work environment and work-life balance. How dare they? What kind of an entitlement mentality do they have? This isn’t a country club, you know.”

While I’m being tongue-in-cheek, you get the idea. Largely gone are the days of the command-and-control style of management where loyalty is a one-way street. Employers are actually listening to what employees want and need.

Organizations frequently accuse employees of having a strong sense of entitlement when organizational change is foisted upon them. Taking away something — especially a highly valued benefit or perk — is going to have negative repercussions, regardless of the reason behind the change.

For this reason, employers need to develop and implement proper change management tools and protocols. Particularly helpful is the idea of a “burning platform” or a crisis leveraged to support change.

While I’m not advocating manufacturing a crisis, if there is a legitimate problem facing the organization, employees should know about it. Communicate this information to them and solicit their advice and suggestions for dealing with the problem. They’ll feel more engaged that way.

Caution must be exercised where feelings of entitlement are the result of changes to employees’ terms and conditions of employment. In a non-union context, unilateral changes to a fundamental term of the employment contract can result in allegations of constructive dismissal. Similarly, in a unionized environment, taking away something won at the bargaining table is often a breach of the collective agreement, leading to grievances or even industrial action.

Having said that, there’s no doubt many employees do have an entitlement mentality, sometimes even when there is clear evidence the status quo is unsustainable. One frequently cited example is the North American auto industry.

That type of entitlement mentality exists when the workforce believes they should be entitled to gold-plated compensation, benefits and pension plans, regardless of an organization’s financial situation. Typically, these employees believe rewards should be based on tenure rather than merit.

This is frequently how critics view employees in highly unionized environments. Union supporters, however, argue there shouldn’t be a race to the bottom and in the face of global competition and poor financial results, management needs convincing economic and financial data to support collective bargaining, especially if concessions are sought from the union.

Another type of entitlement is where employees expect kudos, raises, promotions and huge bonuses for just about everything they do. This can be expected of top performers but not when their performance is actually substandard.

An example might be the investment banking industry in the United States. After losing billions of dollars and being given financial bailout packages from governments, some banks returned to paying employees million-dollar bonuses.

On an individual basis, this type of entitlement can be closely related to narcissism. The narcissist, believing he’s in some way superior to others, truly feels he’s deserving of special treatment. This extends to all aspects of his life, including work.

Professor Paul Harvey at the University of New Hampshire recently conducted studies on psychological entitlement and narcissism. Harvey suggests employers should deal with this form of entitlement by ensuring employees document who did what so narcissists don’t try to take credit for work they didn’t really do. He also suggests employers should screen out candidates exhibiting this type of behaviour through interview questions and surveys.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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