Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Nexus of Supervisor Abuse, Employee Entitlement, and Coworker Abuse: It Is not Pretty

by Professor Tony Wheeler
Associate Professor of Human Resource Management
Over the past 2 or 3 years I’ve been fortunate to speak to several professional groups about workforce development issues.  The first of the Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, reached official Social Security retirement age about 2 years ago, signalling the start of a massive demographic shift in the U.S. workforce.  The Boomer Generation comprises roughly 37% of the U.S. workforce, with Generation X (born between 1965 and 1975) and Generation Y (born between 1976 and 1994) contributing 22% and 38% to the workforce, respectively (MTC Institute: The Workforce of 2010). While I am old enough to recall the halcyon days of Boomers lamenting my generation (X) as being “slackers”, I can happily report to you that my generation appears to concur with Boomers about these Generation Y kids: We shake out collective fists at them.
At all of these meetings all anyone wants to talk about is how to manage Generation Y employees.  The single word I hear again and again to describe Generation Y is “entitled”. These people think they deserve benefits from things for which they have not worked to earn. At least that’s what we think as we shake our fists at them. The study of entitlement, more properly termed ‘psychological entitlement’ in the academic literature, has increased over the past 5 years.  Given that Generation Y employees comprise the largest percent of our workforce and have this reputation as being entitled, we should more closely examine entitlement in the workplace.  How do entitled employees perceive the workplace?  How do they behave in response to organizational cultures, processes, and practices? How do they behave toward coworkers?

As I wrote about almost a year ago, I have a research interest in workplace bullying.  I have continued this line of research to examine a specific aspect of workplace bullying: abusive supervision.  Abusive supervision is a perception an employee has about how the boss treats subordinates.  We are not talking about physical abuse here but verbal or mental abuse.  Again, a perception of abuse. Somewhere between 15 to 20% of the U.S. workforce reports the perception of being abused by supervisors, so this is quite a robust phenomenon.

Two colleagues of mine and I had a simple operating hypothesis.  We thought that employees who scored highly on a psychological entitlement measure would not respond well do abusive supervision.  When you think you are entitled to anything and everything, you likely perceive any non-favorable feedback from your supervisor as being abusive.  After all, you are entitled to only positive feedback!
How would entitled employees respond to this perceived abuse?  We thought it would create stress.  Again, when you feel entitled to anything and everything and do not get it, you will feel a bit whacked out.  In turn, how would entitled employees react to this stress?  Like a good entitled person should react: by acting out at those closest to them.  Doesn’t this happen all the time?  (Although you might call it a temper tantrum or displaced anger)  And who in the workplace is closest to an entitled employee?  Their coworkers.
We daily surveyed hundreds of pairs of employees from multiple industries over a 5 day period, and we found exactly what we hypothesized.  Psychologically entitled employees perceive higher levels of abusive supervision compared to less entitled employees, and this abuse increases the emotional exhaustion of the entitled employees, who then engage in abusive behavior toward their coworkers. This pattern creates a hostile environment, the kind in which performance will likely suffer, escalations of abuse will increase, and turnover likely ensues.  In other words, this will cost your company money and make life miserable for all involved.
So what to do?  Can you use pre-hire tests to weed out entitled employees?  Probably not.  How is entitlement job related or predictive of performance?  I recommend clear and strong anti-bullying and abuse policies that your company implements in a zero tolerance manner.  You need to establish a culture where this type of behavior is immediately addressed.  If not, by ignoring the abuse you tacitly endorse it, which only serves to increase it.  This goes for supervisors and employees.  What if your managers are abusive?  Do you condone that behavior and all of its ill effects? Is that the culture you want to promote?  In the end, I simply refer you to one of my favorite books on how to deal with disruptive or abusive employees; The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.  Employees will follow the rules, even entitled employees will, if your company enforces the rules.

1 comment:

  1. I agree about the entitlement, I was born in 1980 and I started college at 26. I was amazed at the entitlement of students and how their behavior toward professors demonstrated this. Some of these students felt they should be given grades even if their work was subpar. They would take things a step further and argue with a TA or professor to raise their grade through extra credit at the end of the semester or just because. The interesting thing is that some TA's and professor would actually change their grade. If high school and college is preparation for the "real world" I feel it needs to be addressed here...if not sooner.