Entitlement can be defined as the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment. Many small businesses get in the trap of keeping long-term employees that have failed to grow with the business and feel they deserve special treatment. Such entitlement can be devastating to the overall growth of the business and frankly can take a lot of the fun out of running a company. So why are owners and managers so reluctant to deal with “sacred cow” employees?

Unhealthy emotions can create fear and inaction. What if I can’t find someone else?  How will I get along without them? I don’t want to deal with this conflict and unpleasantness. Maybe it will magically correct itself. What if they sue me? I’m too busy to bother with this. Unfortunately, failing to deal with the problem early on is probably what created the entitlement. 

So how do you deal with the problem? First, you must confront the individual and make sure he or she understands that you mean business. I suggest an offsite visit or a private meeting with clearly thought-out notes. I would follow up with a written letter for his or her personnel file. If you have legal concerns, consult a labor attorney. I have done well with a conversation identifying the person’s behavior and asking what they are trying to accomplish. I would then give them the rest of the day off with pay to think about whether he or she wants to continue to work at your company. Ask them to let you know in the morning. Of course, you need to be careful with security, computer data, keys, etc. 

Can the employee be turned around? That’s an interesting question. How long has the person been exhibiting bad behavior? The longer it has gone on, the harder it will be for him or her to change. Is the behavior an attempt to hide the person’s inability to do the work? Will he or she accept new training? Is this part of the person’s personality and not likely to change? Does mental illness or medical issues play a role? Just like other illnesses, emotional illness left untreated can progress with time. As an employer, medical issues are none of your business but it can still be a reality. Is he or she trying to hide something like theft? We recently discovered a 20-year office manager who was difficult, but much of it was an attempt to keep people at bay so she could hide her dishonest actions. Identifying and correcting the root cause of bad employee behavior can be difficult to determine but in reality, it doesn’t matter. If you are dead by murder or manslaughter, you are still dead. The real issue is whether the employee is willing to admit there is a problem and then make a realistic attempt to change. Without such acknowledgement, the situation is ultimately doomed and will not end pleasantly. Rarely does a terminated employee keep you up at night.

So how do you really prevent employee entitlement? Change your culture and leave the person no choice to either fit in or leave. Why does little Johnny Hellion misbehave in one class and be good in another? Because the environment of the classroom where he behaves simply does not allow bad behavior. It’s like cursing in church. It just is not acceptable and therefore, not done.

  Start by being a better leader. Set public goals for the organization and hold people accountable to meet them. Leave no place for people to hide bad behavior. Put measurements in place. Focus on results. Be positive. Communicate better. Have weekly production meetings and assign tasks. Start the following week’s production meeting by reviewing last week’s task. Stay future-focused. Influence those around you to strive for excellence. If the entitled employee complains, focus on the future with what and how questions. What are we going to do different to prevent this? How can we avoid this problem in the future? Force future behavior change and stay away from the bitching and complaining. If by some miracle you woke up tomorrow and the situation was corrected, what would that look like? Well, it’s not going to happen through divine intervention or a miracle, so take steps to correct things.  

Even if they are not actually kin to you, in reality many long-term, entitled employees are part of your business family. It is natural for you to become emotionally attached and loyal to them. However, don’t let them take advantage of such loyalty. Termination is tough but you can’t let a privileged few hurt everyone. Bullies and whiners exhibit bad behavior because they are allowed to be that way. You have an obligation to make your company efficient and a pleasant place to work. Better leadership is never a bad thing to implement.