Character traits associated with entitled workers, such as an aversion to critical feedback, suggest they are more likely to create trouble on the job than their co-workers, new academic research shows.
By Kecia Bal
Psychologically entitled employees -- those who have unjustified positive self-perceptions and can be narcissistic -- are more likely than other employees to claim their bosses are abusive, according to research released last month from the University of New Hampshire.
The study, which involved two surveys of full-time employees, compared responses between participants found to exhibit psychological entitlement and their co-workers. In both surveys, employees with higher levels of entitlement rated supervisors as more abusive than other workers with the same supervisor.
"We know that there's an entitlement issue out there," says researcher Paul Harvey, associate professor of organizational behavior at the university. "It is what we expected to find going in, but we were a little surprised at the magnitude of the difference caused by just one variable."
A presentation of the survey by Harvey and his research colleagues will be published in The Leadership Quarterly journal in an upcoming article titled "Abusive Supervision and the Entitled Employee."
The implications are problematic for employers, he says, especially in light of concerns over the youngest crop of workers entering the workplace: millennials. These young workers are often seen as particularly entitled, as demonstrated in this study by the global firm EY, formerly Ernst & Young, that found 68 percent of respondents said they perceived Gen Y managers as "entitled."
"It's undeniable that there has been an uptick in entitlement issues since the younger generation has entered the workforce," Harvey says.
Add to a rising number of Gen Y workers a new potential liability, he says, and the results could be devastating to a supervisor inaccurately accused of being abusive.
"My biggest fear is that there are laws (such as New Hampshire House Bill 591) being enacted or considered in many states to protect employees from abusive supervisors, which in a lot of ways is good," he says. "My fear is this may [only] be the tip of the iceberg."
Michael Ludwig, a partner at the law firm of Blank Rome in Los Angeles, says these types of measures -- part of a growing focus on curbing workplace bullying -- mean employers need to be vigilant about setting guidelines.
"For starters, employers can include policies in their employee handbooks that spell out the kinds of abusive or bullying behaviors that are not tolerated in the workplace," he says. "And, of course, employers must enforce such policies. Employers who take reasonable measures to prevent workplace abuse or bullying will be in the best position to argue that they should not be liable for it when it happens."
Harvey says the underlying trouble -- that entitled individuals may genuinely feel they have been abused -- matches the old adage 'perception is reality.'
"Those with a strong sense of entitlement have an automatic tendency to say negative feedback is wrong, and in their mind, they are being abused," he says. "They may see this legislation and say, 'I'm going to sue this boss.' "
The trick, then, is how to deal with entitled employees.
HR leaders and managers may do best to handle entitlement issues head-on, says global HR consultant Marv Russell, based in Boynton Beach, Fla., and author of several books, including Linebacker in the Boardroom: Lessons in Life and Leadership.
"I encourage employers to set the standard of performance early and often in a worker's career," Russell says. "I want the worker to understand that it's not just to get the job done but how you achieve your goals. In other words, your behavior and attitude in getting the job done is as important as achieving your goals. We have to be strong in conveying that the best workplace is an environment [in which] we earn respect and give respect to one another."
Russell says he is seeing fewer employers tolerating "entitled" workers and their brand of behavior these days.
"I was recently coaching a young woman who was on a performance-improvement plan," he says. "She told me, 'I expect to be given the freedom to do my job as I see fit,' then went on to say, 'My boss harasses me every day.' She felt that she set the standard of performance and not her supervisor. The improvement plan didn't work, and the employee was terminated for a lack of respect and teamwork."
He adds that improper handling of entitled workers can cause many problems with other workers, particularly seasoned professionals who may have a low tolerance for the entitlement attitude in less-tenured colleagues.
"It is important that HR professionals and line managers learn what I call 'attitude adjustment and transition,' " he says. "Learn how to describe and adjust the self-entitlement as an unacceptable attitude and behavior through self-discovery. When we self-discover the issues, we are more likely to be willing to change how we behave."
One simple way to tackle entitlement, Harvey says, is to avoid hiring those types of candidates in the first place.
Screening for entitlement may be worth the extra effort, he says, and both hiring managers and those who process complaints should at least be looking for clues.
"I think screening is something to consider," he says. "There is always a touchy area around assessing people on things that are not 100-percent related to the job they'll be doing. I think a sense of entitlement is something that can be destructive to any job. I think there is probably justification to [screen for entitlement]. Extreme cases of entitlement, though, show [themselves] quickly and easily."
The same awareness is crucial in handling complaints accusing a supervisor of abusive behavior, he says.
"If there's no corroborating, objective evidence given," Harvey says, "it's a red flag" and HR needs to start looking to other supervisors, coworkers and customers as well as performance evaluations of both the accuser and accused.
"Look for a common thread," he says. "You have to play detective a little bit. When you're dealing with abusive supervision, from any angle -- legal or as a manager -- there at least needs to be an awareness that abuse is a perception, and that needs to be factored into the equation."