What’s in it for me? The rise of the entitled employee in SMEs

  • When can I expect promotion?
  • How much will my next pay rise be?
  • Can we have better social and leisure facilities?
  • How much will you pay me for taking on more responsibility?

Does it sometimes seem that your employees expect your company to deliver ever more and better benefits, while at the same time you find yourself saying, ‘why can’t I get people to do what I want them to do?’, and, ‘why am I the only person who gets things done around here?’

Perhaps it’s their fault

Could it be to do with the age and type of employee you are recruiting? The press is full of articles about what ‘millennials’ expect from working life. We’ve all seen the headlines: they are ‘entitled’ at work. They’re the ‘Me, Me, Me Generation,’ and, apparently, want ‘success on a plate.’ 

If it’s a generational issue, you’d expect to hear these complaints from business owners who mainly employ younger people. But we hear the same complaints right across the board, so this attitude is not confined to millennials. Many employees, it seems, focus mainly on what a business can provide for them, and much less on what they can bring to their workplace.

A favourite question of ours is ‘why do you have appraisals?’. In organisations which haven’t thought much about their performance management processes, we can pretty much guarantee people will say something like, ‘to see how I’m doing in my job’, ‘to find out what my bonus will be’, or ‘to find out what training and development I’ll be doing next year’. And this won’t only come from the younger, newer employees – we get the same answers from the Boardroom.

So, people who work for organisations appear in some way to expect the traffic to be mostly one way – from the organisation to themselves. Their first response is almost never, ‘to make sure I’m doing everything I should do in my job’, or ‘to make sure the business is getting what it needs from me’ – and if it is, we know we are dealing with an organisation that has a healthy attitude to performance management, which by and large makes a good job of it.

A mindset shift

These responses betray a certain mindset – an attitude to organisations, especially smaller / private / family-owned ones, which goes something like, ‘I joined a smaller organisation so I wouldn’t just be a cog in a machine’.  ‘Smaller organisations are friendlier, more caring, less hard-nosed than huge commercial corporates – and that’s the kind of environment I want to work in’.

So it’s hardly surprising that when their appraisal comes around people expect to hear what the organisation is going to do for them – unless you as the business leader / owner have made a very good job of setting up the unwritten ‘contract’ between you. And we see too many business leaders who fall into the same trap – driven by the same attitude, they fall over backwards to be ‘caring’ and ‘personal’ in their approach to their staff, only to find that the traffic is all one way.

Your company has made a transition

There is a significant transition that companies make as they grow from the early, start-up, ‘toddler’ phase into the more professional, structured ‘teenager / young adult’ phase. Two of the most important features of this shift are

  • Roles in the company change from being designed around people and their skills and preferences, to being designed around what the organisation needs to survive.
  • Processes and systems need to be captured and articulated – they no longer exist just in someone’s mind, but are explicitly written down so that anyone holding the same job could do things the same way.

As the business leader, it’s crucial to get your head round this change in focus from the individual to the organisational. If you don’t get it and act on it, nobody else will. These two key features come together in how you define and clarify your expectations of employees in your organisation.

So maybe it’s not all your employees’ fault

Maybe it’s time to take a cold, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself: ‘how good a job am I making of telling people what I expect of them in exchange for all those goodies we provide?’ First of all, examine what messages you are giving people from Day 1.

Have you looked recently at the advertising and marketing you aim at new recruits to your organisation? It’s not uncommon to see employment advertisements and website pages which focus heavily on ‘what you will get if you come and work for us’. A selection:

  • ‘… a clear path for advancement with individual achievement recognised by increased financial rewards as well as by promotion. Sports and social activities provide a welcome balance to ensure that business is fun as well’.
  • ‘invest in a firm that invests in you’.
  • ‘…you’ll receive a highly competitive salary and benefits package, the opportunity to work in a great central location surrounded by collaborative colleagues and be an integral part of our growth story’.

These ads list the requirements of the roles available, but they do so in such abstract and complex terms that the words that jump out at you are the attractive descriptions of ‘what’s in it for me’. Is it any surprise then that those promises are what your employees tend to remember?

It’s all about expectations

So how do you make it clear that all these goodies are part of a deal – one in which there is a lot of good stuff available, in return for clear deliverable outcomes from your staff? Well, you can define roles in the same simple attractive terms as you describe your benefits and facilities. To do this, define the role in terms of what it delivers to the business – a list of outputs (accountabilities) rather than a list of activities. It’s not a list of ‘what you do’ (most job descriptions we see are just this); it’s an overview of what you can be counted on to deliver – the ‘accountabilities’ of the role – and these are measurable.

For example, not, ‘drive ongoing product development and management of consulting solutions’, but:

Accountability Success measures
profitable and successful new products · profitability per product
· customer satisfaction
· quality metrics
· etc
innovative and well-managed consulting solutions · market feedback
· client satisfaction
· team satisfaction
· fee income
· repeat business
· etc


It takes rigorous work to define accountabilities this punchy and understandable, and the best way to do it is to do it with the current jobholders in a conversation with all stakeholders present. This takes time and effort, but results in all kinds of benefits:

  • Everyone knows what they are accountable for
  • The emphasis moves away from activity to results
  • It’s a sound and practical basis for performance reviews
  • Each team member can support their colleagues to achieve team outcomes
  • Management can manage and motivate others and themselves to deliver clear outcomes
  • At any time you can check how well you are doing
  • It’s a great a platform for recruitment…
  • …and, most importantly, makes your expectations of your employees crystal clear, so that they and you are clear on what each of you is providing as your half of the bargain.

Stop promising the earth

Perhaps it really is time that you stopped promising the earth and do the work to show that you expect a very clear and simply stated set of deliverables in exchange.

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