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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's in it for me?

I work in a small creative firm and have an employee who is technically very good, but a few times now has expressed this "what's in it for me?" attitude when asked to consider contributing to something that is outside the realm of their regular job. (And don't get me wrong, it's not like we regularly ask or expect people to put in overtime, or go above and beyond the call of duty, but from time to time every company needs its people to go that extra mile).

By way of example, our company recently ran an internal contest to rewrite our phone system message to the outside world. Senior management figured that with a bunch of creatives in-house it would be a positive step to invite internal people to come up with something witty and fun. The first thing this employee asked was "What's in it form me? Are there prizes or anything?" When the contest creator explained that they'd get corporate recognition in the newsletter and the opportunity to influence the public image, this person responded that wasn't enough, and that the company was "saving money" by not hiring someone creative to do it, so they didn't feel "incented" to participate. I was told about my employee's "attitude"...

Now I hate the usual generic management-speak about "being a team player" and "can do" attitudes and all that, but it really irked me and this obviously reflects badly on this person in terms of general perception within the company. It's not like we were asking people to work nights and weekends for a month or anything. I also don't like this "what's in it for me?" attitude over the smallest things being propagated amongst my team. Maybe I'm old school, but it comes across as negative and unmotivated to me. I mean it's one thing if that was the person's internal perception, but another entirely to publicly declare that unless they are getting compensated financially, they aren't interested in participating in something as simple and silly as a phone message contest.

My problem is that I don't know how to approach this person to indicate that it makes me less inclined to promote them, and certainly doesn't reflect well on them with respect to how they are perceived by others in the company without it coming off as critical and/or confrontational

I'm looking for a non-confrontational way to explain that this kind of attitude is going to hurt this person's career, here or anywhere... and encourage them to reconsider their responses to these kinds of things. I don't want to sound like I am spouting "Successories" poster jargon, however. Can you help or am I unrealistic in thinking that I can somehow influence a person to change this kind of behavior?


You say you don't want to criticize, but criticism is actually necessary for improvement. Let me give you an example: I'm taking German lessons. My teachers correct us every time we make a mistake. This way we learn. A friend, who is also new to Switzerland, but no longer taking formal lessons said he's given up learning anything from adults: "If I make a grammar mistake, they just politely ignore it, even when I tell them that I want to be corrected. I now try to talk to children as much as possible, as they'll always point out my errors."

Now, of course, the difference between us German learners and your employee is that we know we need help and we want it. Unfortunately, for you, part of the job of a manager is to let your employees know when they need help. This is critical for everyone's success.

Use the contest issue, as it's a clear example. Often times when people go to address a behavior their minds go completely blank and they can't think of a single example, even though there are probably 482 examples.

Sit the employee down, in a closed door meeting (no listening co-workers). Explain that she is technically very good, but that her attitude is causing some problems. Use the contest example. She will complain and protest. Expect this.

Say: "The negative attitude makes me less inclined to promote you, and certainly doesn't reflect well on you with respect to how you are perceived by others in the company."

She will deny and complain and protest and reiterate how stupid the contest is. You can show empathy, but then it's your turn to reiterate what you said above. (And note, I just copied this from your e-mail. You already know what needs to be said.)

After your third iteration of this, tell her politely that the conversation is now over and it's her decision on how she responds to things, but that it does affect her career. And that's what is in it for her.

38 comments:

Frank said...

Great advice.

As a small business owner, here's another part of that equation: Get rid of that person.

In this economy, you don't need to keep people who want to do the bare minimum or actively disengage. That type are terrible for a small business. Why have them? I say get it together or hit the road. There are 500 people out there right now who would love your job --- and they'll gladly record a phone message.

dave wags said...

I absolutely agree with your idea of a closed door session, and a direct confrontation.

However, the instant a manager tries to passively apply peer pressure, ala "how you are perceived by others", it shows weakness. Stick to your guns. Stick to "I feel" and "I need you to" as opposed to "others may feel".

As important as social interactions between coworkers is, it's not a manager's job to promote or quash them. Nor should it become a bullet point in a professional course correction session.

Danielle said...

Heck yes!

Charles said...

I think that there might be more to this story.

How often is "from time to time" and what is the "extra mile"? I'm sure superiors and subordinates have different definitions of these two phrases.

Before sitting down with this employee I would suggest that the supervisor think about why this employee might be saying/doing this.

Are the request really not that big a deal? Or is the employee correct in thinking that the request is something that a higher-salaried employee should be doing?

Too many such "simple" requests do come across as employers who are taking advantage of their employees. When the job market gets bad many employers have a way of becoming "sleazy" this way. Even if most of the employees do the extra work, maybe most are too afraid to speak up; especially in this economy?

On a second note and most importantly, why is the manager/supervisor making a big deal out of it being so "public"? Is it really the supervisor's concern about how this employee looks? Or is it more likely that the employee is stating that the emperor is not wearing any clothes? If it is the first, I think a simple "well, then you don't have to participate" the next time would be enough. If it is the latter, and the supervisor has a "chat" with the employee then the employee will be truthful in telling everyone what a dork the supervisor is and that will harm morale more than not doing anything.

Just something to consider.

Anonymous said...

"Is it really the supervisor's concern about how this employee looks?"

Yes it is as it reflects back on the supervisor at some level. Suddenly one employee can end up giving an entire department a label of "uncooperative" and from then on every perceived problem gets magnified. Good "public relations" within the company is a valuable asset for any manager.

If the employee didn't want to participate in the contest, they could have just declined without the snarky attitude.

The Engineer said...

Games and contests are good motivators for some individual and worthless to others. I don't "do" many games either. The description of the contest sounds as if it is a voluntary "see if you can get your name in lights" sort of thing. To those of us who show up for the paycheck alone, that sort of thing is often meaningless. It may not be "snarky" but rather simply "I'm not interested." The game is not the motivation this individual needs.

Personally, I don't see a "contest" as the company needing staff to go above and beyond. It is a contest. Going above and beyond is sitting a group down and saying "we need a new set of phone greetings and can't afford to outsource it. What do we have for ideas?" Make it a job assignment. Don't present something as an optional extra and be surprised when some staff opts out.

The employee is described as very good in the area of expertise. No evidence was given that there are any job performance issues. I'd be careful wanting to surround yourself with the happy game people at the potential expense of technical competency. Yes, culture matters. More so in small businesses. Cluing the employee in on how they are perceived is good for them, but I would want to review whether there really is a problem needing correction and not simply irritation that someone didn't like my "great" idea.

Anonymous said...

A contest usually implies a prize. I agree with the employee's observations. However, he/she needs to learn when it is appropriate to voice those observations.

jmkenrick said...

Charles, I don't know if I agree with you. Based on the example, it doesn't sound so much like the problem is the employer asking their workers to do excessive work. For example, I'm sure if she had participated but done a poor job (maybe coming up with messages isn't her strong suit) I doubt her supervisors would care.

The issue here is clearly her attitude and how she expresses it (remember the questioner said that if she had kept these thoughts to herself they wouldn't be having this conversation?)

I can understand this. One person with a "what's in it for me" attitude can effect a whole group of people. They might pick up on her vibes, or wonder why the supervisor still gives her good assignments when she's clearly so negative.

But more to the point - I would wonder why she wanted to be there. There should be motivation to work than just a paycheck, and thinking that your fellow employees are only in it for the money is disheartening. Plus, her learning to control sharing these thoughts is probably in her best interest, since employers do make hiring and promoting choices based on personality and attitude. I think that's the issue.

class-factotum said...

1. Job description should include the phrase, "Other duties as assigned."

2. What's in it for you is you get to keep your job.

Lynn said...

I can understand why supervisors would find the comments uncomfortable - but I frankly don't see the problem with the attitude or even with the voicing of it. As managers often remind people, your "benefit" is your salary so why shouldn't the employee focus on that?

Not everyone gets anything out of work other than a paycheck - and you know what? That's OK. It's work, not their life. Not everyone finds a "calling".

The manager can feel free to say that this attitude might impact the employee's chances for promotion - because the higher-ups prefer people with a little more "enthusiasm". That said, the manager should be prepared to hear back that the employee doesn't much care whether they are promoted or not.

I have several co-workers who have exactly this type of attitude and they are perfectly fine to work with because they do their jobs competently - just don't expect corporate cheerleaders.

HR Leigh said...

The issue here is not that they didn't want to participate in the contest, but that this was just an example of typical behavior when asked to work outside their job. Employees like this are toxic and she should have the conversation EHRL discussed. The conversation may need to go further to the classic "You are obviously unhappy..." conversation. This employee is probably (justifiably or not) feeling they are not appreciated or paid their worth. Addressing that issue could go a long way to helping explain that the negativism they display is outweighing their positive, competent contributions.

I would fully expect that the employee will focus on the fact that this is a voluntary activity and avoid addressing it was their behavior, not their opinion, that led to the closed door conversation with HR. I've often found that this type of employee can not accept responsibility for their own behavior. If they could, they would have a better internal edit button.

If I thought the company was doing this to save money in this economy, I personally would be fine with that. I'd rather have my job than to give someone else a 2 day project that costs as much as I make in a month.

Adriana said...

I agree in that a confrontation is necessary however the word attitude brings out a hostility in people and attitudes are a component of a far greater more quantifiable action which is behavior. I would do what I can to change her behavior not her attitude. Attitude carries a lot of emotions and perceptions, behavior carries specific actions. i.e. when you do this, it results in this. For example, when you publicly dissent to a potentially great idea, others perceive you as not being cooperative or a team player.

Changing behavior is a lot more effective than changing attitudes. It takes practice not a change in philosophical views.

Anonymous said...

Employees are giving back what they are receiving from upper management.
Treating employees like toys in a money driven economy will surely not bring respect. But yeah, that's the game, make more money, more work and try to have your employees with a happy face when they don't even know if despiste their 12 years of loyal services they're going to be fired tomorrow or not. Respect me, I'll respect others.

Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com said...

In 12+ years I have spent in small and large (120+ employees) startups, this attitude would have prompted me to simply tell our recruiter to start looking for a replacement. Person simply does not fit the culture and even the best talent is not worth sacrificing team culture for.

You can fix lack of skills, you can fix some of the stupid mistakes an employee might make, but you can't fix attitude issues. One can try to "incentivise" etc., but that just takes away resources and attention from those who actually care. That is not fair to the good employees.

Another thing to also learn from this is that it is us, who hired him/her, who are at fault for hiring this person in the first place. That kind of attitude can be easily uncovered during the interview process. This person is more fit for a Fortune 500 or a union job, not an "all hands on deck" startup or a SMB.

Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor said...

Ten years ago I would also have said, "Fire 'em." Now i look at why an employee would say that. Quite simply their needs are not being met or their personality is not driven to try to please. Sounds like they are an Analytical which is great, they often are truth-tellers. It sounds like this HR director is a people pleaser afraid of conflict. Understand those two personalities better and you'll find common ground. Just fire them and you may lose a valuable asset.

Joe said...

Knowing that we are talking about a small company, is there a formal or informal mentoring program in place? When it's not an issue critical to job performance, but a behavioral issue that could be holding the employee back from future opportunities (which sounds like the case here) coming from a mentor would probably cause the employee to be less defensive. This conversation reminds me way too much of "Office Space" and having the manager sit down and talk to the employee about the importance of having a positive attitude and chipping in isn't going to be productive. If a mentor doesn't exist for this employee, meet with them and speak to them about how their technical competencies are very valued in the company and you'd like to assign them a mentor because there is the potential for the employee to contribute even more.

Anonymous said...

I think some people are blowing this out of proportion. This is a fixable problem and there's no reason to just fire them without giving them a chance to fix their behavior.

I would also advise against telling the employee that they are unhappy. Telling someone that they're feeling something that they're not is a good way to make them angry. It's insulting and it also sounds like an intro to a firing.

There's nothing wrong with only being in it for the money. Let's be honest: would any of us stay at our jobs if we weren't being paid to be there? We're not talking about unpaid internships here.

I think that EHRL's advice is both necessary and sufficient for solving this problem. If the employee is socially inept and not simply complaining a lot then you might explain why what they said is seen as negative but for most people the contest example should be self-explanatory.

Anonymous said...

I believe the majority are missing the point, the specific case was one example in an ongoing problem with one employee. I too have experienced this type of individual and as a supervisor and not the firing manager had to adjust to deal with the behavior.

With that being said, I agree with Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius, in that this employee hurts the organizational culture because this is what has happened at my organization. Trying to build a department with a negative employee gives many roadblocks including spewing their bad behavior onto others. In my situation, an Ad Agency, all the designers sit in one room and if you day in day out hear constant complaints and negativity it ruins it for you. This specific employee has ruined the atmosphere and culture and I am still trying to get her fired!

Anonymous said...

I believe the majority are missing the point, the specific case was one example in an ongoing problem with one employee. I too have experienced this type of individual and as a supervisor and not the firing manager had to adjust to deal with the behavior.

With that being said, I agree with Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius, in that this employee hurts the organizational culture because this is what has happened at my organization. Trying to build a department with a negative employee gives many roadblocks including spewing their bad behavior onto others. In my situation, an Ad Agency, all the designers sit in one room and if you day in day out hear constant complaints and negativity it ruins it for you. This specific employee has ruined the atmosphere and culture and I am still trying to get her fired!

Anonymous said...

I think the reason this person has this attitude is obvious. Some people do have lives outside of the company, and might value things such as say...their health or the community or hobbies over doing a bunch of extra stuff for a company that will lay them off on a whim.

Rajesh said...

Raj said..

I can relate with this kind of situation since I had faced also in my experience. I have a suggestion also which may be useful.
Firstly, everyone are not similar with regards to the motivating factors. People differs. You may consider to look into how this person respond in other situations with regards to his job performing situations. Does this person react similarly in his direct job related things also. If yes, then the advice above is the best option. If not and he is good in those areas, then we may have to consider this staff's point.
Since your's is a creative company, let us initiate someway of monthly creative recognition award (something like that) , to do something interesting, witty & funny way of recognizing & appreciation. You may even give away some gifts(what's in it for me? - for that person) along with the award.
Let us make more creative, witty & funny way of recognition.
Everything can be considered if this staff is generally good in his/her job performance.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the old bait-and-switch tactic. Hire somebody with fair compensation, and then exploit the vastly greater cost to the individual than the company of finding a replacement to get extra work done for free. Ain't capitalism great? Even a HR drone should be smart enough to figure out why we hate you.

FL EHR said...

Hi EHR- I'm one of you-HR & Evil. I've always heard attitude is an expression of beliefs. Bad attitudes are beliefs in action. Can't legislate beliefs. But I can mandate how & when actions occur. So you may want to say "You, bad attitude employee, Displayed negative behavior, made rude comments,showed an offensive don't care about anything behavior, missed deadlines, didn't support co-workers," etc...you get the drift. It's faster & easier to get the point across.

Lee said...

It sounds like you need to give the employee a trophy. Perhaps relate it to attendance. Not perfect attendance; rather, just for showing up. And give one to every other employee while you're at it for being part of the team.

Don't worry about whether they win or lose, for everyone is a winner in their own way. That's why we should keep giving trophies.

Anonymous said...

I understand the negative terms employers will use to describe such an employee but is this the lowest paid person for a long period of time who is watching others get promoted or taking credit for his work? Does he ever get recognition for anything extra he has done? Is the person burned beyond recognition? Yes, he is getting a paycheck and in a perfect world should be bright eyed and bushy tailed for all extra curriculum activity but in the "some animals are more equalier than others" corporate atmoshere there are many people disgruntled over the favorites getting the lion's share of perks. I'm just saying.........

Anonymous said...

Here's something to consider. When you do sit down to speak with this employee, don't give them feedback about their attitude. That gives them reason to be defensive and you'll have a whole different conversation on your hands. Talk to them about specific and observable behaviors. Focus on what you heard them say or what you saw them do. Remember that these conversations should also be a dialog. Be open to listening to the employee. There's something going on that you don't know about and this employee needs to be able to discuss it.

Anonymous said...

Here's something to consider. When you do sit down to speak with this employee, don't give them feedback about their attitude. That gives them reason to be defensive and you'll have a whole different conversation on your hands. Talk to them about specific and observable behaviors. Focus on what you heard them say or what you saw them do. Remember that these conversations should also be a dialog. Be open to listening to the employee. There's something going on that you don't know about and this employee needs to be able to discuss it.

Anonymous said...

I work 60+ hours a week. If HR wants me to do a contest, I wonder how they have the time to run a contest and why that time isn't being used to improve the employee benefits package or bring training onsite... And why I need to stop what I am doing to participate in a contest.

Anonymous said...

It's not okay to work for just a pay cheque. If that is the attitude of an employee it sickens the whole company. I always believe that no matter what you do, you should do your best. Anything less is unacceptable. There is nothing more repulsive than a lazy, work-to-rule employee.

FratBernstein said...

This is ridiculous. If you work you should be comped for it. That is the center of capitalism, enlightened self interest, etc. The person asking "What's in it for me" is fault of management and HR because a) that person is not satisfied with the overall effect he/she feels he/she has (and resulting comp from effect) or b) comp level for this person. Typical HR attitude.

Anonymous said...

Why I don't care that you think I have a bad attitude!

Over the past 3 years, I have "assumed" the majority of the tasks that were done by three other people whose positions were eliminated. My workload has steadily increased as turnover around me has created a grossly inequitable distribution. Please don’t confuse frustration with having a bad attitude.

I was not asked if I wanted the additional responsibility. I was not given any additional training. I have not received any additional compensation—not even a “keep up the good work!” It seems that the more I do, the more you expect from me. Please don’t confuse burnout with having a bad attitude.

My last three "merit increases" have been prorated because of the midyear promotion that put me in this spot or capped because of economic constraints. Although, all of my reviews tell me I have consistently exceeded expectations and are ready for promotion, I am still here. Please don’t confuse my feeling cheated with having a bad attitude.

My request for a raise that was supposed to be included with my FY08 review never materialized because of a promotion related to new business that we ultimately backed out of. To add insult to injury, when the client came back to us with new terms and we accepted the contract I was passed over for the promotion—because I was already paid more than the position was budgeted for. Please don’t confuse the loss of my loyalty (I already felt cheated, remember?) with having a bad attitude.

In spite of my repeated requests, you neglect to provide a schedule in advance. The only time it seems that I get my schedule in advance is when you write it out of spite because one of the managers arrived too late or left too early the previous week. It is fun to plan my life around your spite, but please, don’t confuse my lack of respect for you (or the zero respect you show for your subordinates) with having a bad attitude.

My bad attitude is the sum of these (and more) wrongs that I have experienced and the result of your dismissive attitude towards my feelings regarding them. Instead of listening and empathizing, you argue and discount. Clearly, you are perfect!

My bad attitude is my way of telling you that I am finished being a team player, a company man, a go to guy, a whipping boy, a donkey, and a scapegoat. I really want to be like the incompetent drunkard next to me that gets paid the same because nobody ever bothers him to come un-jam the printer.

My bad attitude is my way of telling you that I do not appreciate working six and seven days per week with no comp time while others are not expected to do the same. Because I don’t have kids is certainly not an acceptable reason but nice try. Is it even legal to say something like that?

My bad attitude is my way of
telling you that I have begun looking for another job and will settle for far less money to be surrounded by people who are passionate about the industry and to feel valued and respected again.

My bad attitude is my way of telling you that you should terminate me because I am too afraid to quit on my own and too poor to do it without unemployment compensation.

soulsister979@yahoo.com

Ian said...

This completely reminds me of Office Space, when Jennifer Aniston is asked to wear more flairs (15 is the minimum ... Don't you want to express yourself?)

If the company's definition of 'going above & beyond' in little contest.

The problem here is how the asker interpreted the attitude. An employee can go above & beyond by taking a hour to help another project to save the other project a day of tasks; but gave the respond "what's in it for me?" to the voluntary contest.

My interpretation of the contest is that the company is setting trap, so they can have an excuse not to give a raise.

The suggested conversation might make the confusion worst. Even if you say "No No, you don't have to, but ..." (It is the equivilant to "it's not you, it's me" break-up conversation.)

So you better take a second look at your interpretation before jumping to conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I am shocked at the divergence of responses here. I guess we all fill in the blank spaces of this scenario with our own experiences. Some imagine a terribly oppressive atmosphere where everyone is overworked and underappreciated, and some see a non motivated employee who feels the world owes them something and is out to poison everyone around him/her.

As a manager, if this type of thing happened with one of my direct reports, I'd definitely have a conversation with him/her, and it would be for the purpose of trying to understand why my employee is feeling so bitter towards the company or the job. I would want to know if they feel mistreated, overworked, etc, and then address those concerns. If it came down to the fact that they simply didn't like the job very much and didn't want to give any more than they had to, I would respect that. If I could improve the situation for them in some way, I would.

But if there was no chance of changing the job or fixing their problem, or if we have been down this road before and it turns out that the employee is never going to be happy, then I would say something like, "Well I value the great job that you do, but I hate to see any of my people unhappy, so I'd certainly understand if you were to look for another job.

However, while you are in this job, I would appreciate if you consider your coworkers. We all have to come here each day and work together, and I want this to be a pleasant environment for my team and for myself. You don't have to particpate in a contest if you don't want to, and that's ok. But it's not ok to disrespect the company or your co-workers, who may actually enjoy an additional challenge once in a while."

Some people come around when they realize that the boss actually cares, and when they realize that they are hurting innocent people like co-workers.

Some people are just bitter and negative and need to be politely directed towards the door.

Snarkysmachine said...

"Senior management figured that with a bunch of creatives in-house it would be a positive step to invite internal people to come up with something witty and fun. The first thing this employee asked was "What's in it form me? Are there prizes or anything?" When the contest creator explained that they'd get corporate recognition in the newsletter and the opportunity to influence the public image, this person responded that wasn't enough, and that the company was "saving money" by not hiring someone creative to do it, so they didn't feel "incented" to participate. I was told about my employee's "attitude"... "

Nope. The thing I have learned most about working is people do not respect work they do not have to pay for. And I don't think this employee was out of line at all. It sounds like they were setting boundaries, albeit in a less than tactful way, but boundaries nonetheless.

In harsh economic times it employers become cheap and somewhat shifty. Playing on the fear of job loss to demand certain things they would not demand in an employee's market.

This has nothing to do with "office culture" or insubordination. This has everything to do with an employee who realizes what their life priorities are and this job is merely a means to that end.

This is the climate that corporate America created. Suck it up.

Dreamwurkstudios said...

After reading this post, I believe many of you are missing a point including the poster and HR Lady. If the phone message creation is not listed in the employees job duties then it is extracurricular in nature, therefore voluntary. Offer an incentive, Dinner for two at Olive Garden, it costs the Company very little, gives the contest value and improves employee morale. Did I miss something or am I naive.

Anonymous said...

Well said Dreamwurkstudios, well said.

Anonymous said...

Without knowing more, this sounds like a "that's not my job" complaint.

I had an employee who, each year, asked why she didn't get a bigger increase than the COLA. I told her that until she was doing more than her job description she'd never get more than the standard compensation for that job.

To me, it may be an engagement problem - why doesn't this person WANT to be more involved? Get to the heart of that, and you'll either find that the person
1)Really doesn't want to be that involved, no matter who they work for, or
2) There's some reason they aren't feeling engaged.

If 1, you have to decide if that's enough. if 2, you should look at ways to fix it.

Anonymous said...

For one thing, we are all hate are jobs but it pays the bills. However, we all work together and we should respect each other.Yes, we all don't do things that are apart of our descriptions and we feel underappreciated but that's life . Its up to us to change it whether or not the company or the employees agree. I am in that similiar situation .Although, people will do what they need to either to get along or to get you out. Its always a challenge.People don't have to like you because you work there but its also a job to get your work done and that's it.bottom line.