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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer You Owe Me

Can you keep staffers from jumping ship when they seek more?

By  Julia Kramer

There are times when someone says “you owe me” and I wholeheartedly agree. Years back, my basement flooded with about two feet of ice-cold water from a combination punch of freezing rain and a defective sump pump. In an extreme act of kindness (or pity) my ex-husband spent hours helping me bail water. Without his help, the basement would have been a total loss. “You owe me,” he said. “Big time,” I agreed.

On the job I feel different about the whole “owing” thing. I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to do what it takes and to help others without thinking “you owe me.” Sports analogies abound as to what is expected. We step up to the plate. We pick up the dropped ball. And we pinch hit.

In non-sports lingo, we step out of our comfort zones, we don’t let a project fall apart and we lend our expertise when it’s needed. We know that we’ll reap what we sow, and besides, we get a nice payback every payday.

So why do some employees think they are owed special consideration for doing what is expected? Why the widespread feelings of entitlement? Many sources blame the entitlement syndrome on those workers 30 years old and younger. I don’t buy it. Entitlement comes in all ages, shapes and sizes.

Take, for example, the boomer who feels entitled to salary increases that keep up with inflation, based on the cost-of-living indices. She may not consider, as ERI Economic Research Institute reported in June, that while employees may feel entitled to “an increase that keeps them even with the ‘cost of living,’ employers must face the reality of setting pay levels based on the demand for labor and the goods and services that they produce.”

She may reject the reality that her employer has financial goals and doesn’t owe her an increase if her pay is in line with the market. And, if she is a high achiever, she may be blind to the fact that basing increases on the cost of living could limit her income since the index has no connection to her firm’s internal equity and valuation system or even market competitiveness. So, by feeling entitled to and arguing for a cost-of-living based system, she may in fact be arguing against the very thing she’s trying to achieve.

Young employees have their own unique brand of entitlement. In a recent article at ABCNews.com, one employer laments: “They grew up with an ‘everyone gets a trophy’ sense of entitlement. They are members of a generation that thinks it should get a trophy just for waking up in the morning.”

While I disagree with this broad generalization, they do seem to look at the world through a different lens, as illustrated in Morley Safer’s recent interview of two young workers on “60 Minutes.”

“A message to bosses everywhere: just don’t forget the praise. We want to hear it, and truly we’d love for our parents to know. There’s nothing better than Mom getting that letter saying, ‘You know, Ryan did a great job,’” one said. “Send it to Grandma, too,” added the other. Also, if they don’t get what they need, they move on. The youngest generation sees no harm in repetitive job hopping to find that ideal position, one that offers the magic combination of exciting work, heaps of positive feedback and fun. After all, they’re entitled to it.

How does a firm deal with employees that have entitlement issues and with generational differences (such as my inability to read the previous paragraph without my boomer brain short-circuiting)?

Start by understanding your employees’ motivations, perceptions and behavior. Communicate in a way that addresses their connection to an issue and what’s in it for them. Augment these discussions by showing them how to get where they want to go. For young employees, explain how increased experience and strong performance leads to that higher salary level to which they already feel entitled. For more mature workers who might feel they have earned the right to a private office, help them deal with cubicles by explaining the business reasons behind the work environment.

Choosing to recognize and deal with these issues in a professional manner will be much more effective than raging against reality. Educate yourself and others on how to enhance communication and maximize productivity. A good dose of humor may help. And remember, the only person you owe this to is yourself, but rest assured your firm will benefit from your efforts. Big time.

Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer.

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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.