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“I want it all and I want it now!” An examination of the etiology, expression, and escalation of excessive employee entitlement

Excessive entitlement is a pervasive and pernicious social issue, one that has considerable significance for human resource management. Despite its implications for work settings, relatively little research has examined this construct through a management lens. In this paper, a definition of excessive entitlement is offered and a model describing how it is expressed and encouraged in organizational settings is proposed. Key human resource functions drawn from the practitioner literature on employee entitlement (recruitment and socialization tactics, performance appraisal and reward structure; Wellner, 2004) are situated as interacting with employee trait levels of excessive entitlement to trigger counterproductive work behaviors. To the extent counterproductive behaviors are rewarded, the psychological correlates of excessive entitlement will spiral in an upward fashion, ultimately reinforcing trait expression. In contrast, ignoring or punishing the behavioral outcomes of excessive entitlement will prompt “regulation,” whereby individuals disavow their entitled attitudes or “retribution,” which may include retaliation, disengagement, and turnover. The implications of this work, along with strategies for advancing the study of excessive entitlement in work settings, are discussed.

It has been suggested that we are living in the “Age of Entitlement” or the “New Gilded Era” (e.g., Samuelson, 1995). Indeed, it seems as though individuals are increasingly subscribing to the belief that they should get exactly what they want, when they want it — oftentimes without regard for the well-being of others. While the antecedents of this rise in feelings of personal deservingness are difficult to pinpoint, several factors have been proposed, including a general increase in the standard of living, proliferation of technology and the “instant gratification” such advancements often bring, and expansion of the welfare safety net (Samuelson, 1995). Whatever the catalysts, it would appear that entitlement-related attitudes are now influencing life in many of our social institutions. For instance, much has been made of entitlement in education (Côté and Allahar, 2007, Greenberger et al., 2008, Jayson, 2005 and Roosevelt, 2009), government (Gomery, 2005), and the family (Allers, 2005, October and Tyre et al., 2004, September 13, , 2004, September 13), and recent press reports suggest entitlement is a significant problem in the workplace (Irvine, 2005, July 3 and Rushowsky, 2007, June 9, 2007, June 9, 2007, June 9).

Despite growing interest in entitlement, a lack of consensus regarding construct definition and dearth of theoretically-grounded work on this topic in the organizational sciences has limited understanding of entitlement as it pertains to work life. The absence of a clear research framework related to entitlement at work is disconcerting, as entitlement attitudes have been implicated in the new psychological contract and noted among individuals with diverse backgrounds working in a variety of industries (e.g., Campbell et al., 2004 and Rousseau, 2005). Indeed, the significance of entitlement for contemporary Human Resource Management (HRM) is particularly salient, as many practitioners have reported frustration with what they perceive to be a workforce with “shockingly high expectations for salary, job flexibility, and duties but little willingness to take on grunt work or remain loyal to a company” — entitled views that seem especially rampant among the newest generation of workers (i.e., “GenY” or the “MeGeneration”; Irvine, 2005, p. E2; also Twenge, 2006).

To date, much of the literature has been inconsistent in acknowledging that entitlement can have both positive and negative connotations — an issue that has detracted from the clarity of this construct’s definition and one compounded by the subjective nature of the criteria upon which entitlement is evaluated (Naumann, Minsky & Sturman, 2002). Thus, a primary purpose of this article is to introduce the construct of excessive entitlement ( Levin, 1970) to the human resource management literature. A second purpose is to present a model outlining the psychological and behavioral consequences associated with reinforcing excessive entitlement in work settings. According to the model, features of the organizational environment can ‘activate’ excessive entitlement, increasing the likelihood of trait expression. The model describes how rewarding the behavioral correlates of excessive entitlement triggers an escalation effect wherein employees describe wanting and deserving more than others for contributing less. In contrast, ignoring or punishing excessive entitlement is posited to result in a) regulation, whereby individuals abandon their entitled views and engage in productive task-related behaviors or b) retribution, which may include retaliation, disengagement, and organizational exit. Further understanding of excessive entitlement and its implications for work life is important in that it will allow organizations to design interventions that prevent the escalation of entitlement-related attitudes and behaviors as well as manage their consequences when they emerge.

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