Now’s NOT the Time to Wear a Scarlet “E”


“First it’s the free lunches, next it’s office supplies, and before you know it, they’ll be canceling the birthday gift cards too,” I overheard one employee complaining to several of his co-workers while they sipped their lattes in a local coffee shop this week. My immediate thought: Yep, he’s wearing a Scarlet E – be careful buddy.

Yes, according to Matthew Boyle’s article in BusinessWeek, companies of all sizes are cutting perks right now. Why? Because they are less drastic than what’s next. Goldman Sachs cut dinner allowances by five bucks, while Alcatel-Lucent grounded three Gulfstream jets. The article says even Google has cut hours at it’s free cafeteria and has cancelled afternoon tea. (I’m not kidding!)

The article goes on to say that companies actually have to assess what perks to cut based on how it will be perceived by the employees. Based on what I heard above, I guess they are right.

For all those workers who feel the way the coffee shop guy does, I caution you: in the current economy, those who display an arrogant sense of entitlement, a Scarlet E, regardless of age, experience or expertise, are playing with fire. Let’s be real clear about the process that’s going on in companies all across America:

First they cut the perks.
Then they cut the salaries and bonuses.
Then come the layoffs.

Now is not the time to outwardly complain about the elimination of perks, demand excessive job requirements, or push an employer for a significant pay increase. Yet, even in spite of the prediction that unemployment will reach 8% by next year, a lot of workers will continue to wear a Scarlet E without realizing it – and put their job at risk in the process. Like this gal…

A survivor of a recent layoff, she was complaining about the fact that she was just given double the territory she had before the cuts and would have to start traveling overnight 2-3 days/month. She has two small children and, up until now, had the understanding with her boss that she wouldn’t travel until the kids were all school-age. These were her exact words, “He knows my situation. I don’t even need this job. I just like the paycheck. They are going to have to do something about this.” For the second time this week, I thought: Yep, a Scarlet E – I’d be careful.

I bet you are thinking, “Ya, I know some folks like that – but I don’t act entitled.” Don’t be so sure. Many employees wear the Scarlet E without knowing it. Let me explain…

Over the years, we’ve actually been conditioned to feel certain entitlements as Americans, especially in the workplace. With the erosion of the employee-employer relationship that used to guarantee a lifetime of employment in exchange for a worker’s loyalty, we started to demand more in return for our services as a way to cope with the instability. But now, those demands that seemed so reasonable at the time, may need to be re-evaluated. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy when we’ve become accustomed to them. And that’s were the ugly ‘E’ word comes into play. Here are four reasons to explain how some workers have developed a sense of entitlement that can hurt them in a down economy:

1) Pop-behaviorism – After reading the book, Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn, I came to understand how our culture’s addiction to praise, incentives, bonuses, and other bribes, has made us so externally motivated that we now struggle to understand or appreciate how to do things for the pure personal satisfaction they bring us. Any time we are asked to do something, especially at work, our first thought is, “What’s in it for me?” It’s no wonder we don’t want to lift a finger on-the-job until we know what we’ll get in return.

2) Cinderella Syndrome – The belief that some day, some how, our problems will be magically solved by our own version of Prince Charming. Whether it’s dreams of winning the lottery, becoming famous, hitting it huge in the stock market, finding that special someone who is rich and can’t wait to fix all our problems, and even landing the perfect job with a big salary, many Americans have come to secretly expect the fairytale ending to eventually come true. (ie. Thanks to reality TV, one study shows as much as 80% of young people between the ages of 16-24 expect to be famous.)

3) Sensorial Assault – With all of our technological advancements, we are now bombarded from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep with images that remind us that what we have isn’t good enough. We are told non-stop to want something better, faster, cheaper…24/7. It isn’t a question of willpower, because unless you are willing to move to the middle of nowhere or a third-world country, you can not escape the visual and verbal assault of consumerism and the dissatisfaction programming it delivers.

4) Social Disconnection – Dr. Hallowell’s book “Crazy Busy” discusses the impact technological and industrial progress is having on our ability to feel accomplished and satisfied. He describes Cultural ADD and how we are all overwhelmed by the use of technology and the pressure to make ourselves more efficient. But more importantly, he outlines how we are becoming lonelier, hiding behind technology and losing our ability to communicate effectively face-to-face. We are slowly becoming less tolerant of other’s communication styles and feeling more isolated in our ability to connect personally with people.

The result is a working culture hooked on instant gratification, lacking in coping skills, and growing more frustrated by the day because they never seem to have enough.

Now, the horrible economic situation we are experiencing is giving many of us the reality check needed to change our perspective. A fundamental shift in how individuals view themselves, their values, and their priorities is happening as we speak. But for those who want to make absolutely sure they aren’t wearing a Scarlet E, here are two ideas worth considering:

  1. Think before you complain. EVERYONE is feeling the effects of the economy. That means, everyone is trying to cope with change. Expressing your frustration publicly is risky. When it comes time for more cuts, people will be eager to mention the names of those who have been sporting bad attitudes.
  2. Practice (because it takes a lot of it) living in the moment and being satisfied with what you have. Some people call it ‘counting your blessings’ I call it ‘satisfaction programming.’ Whatever the term, the goal is to develop ways to remind ourselves throughout the day to appreciate and enjoy all that we have in order to push out a negative focus on what we don’t.

Finally, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that none of my suggestions above focus on what employers should be doing to help us. Please know, I am also disgusted by the excess and corruption that continues to be revealed within corporate America. And yes, a large part of the problem we are in today stems from their behavior, but recognizing that fact doesn’t change the state we are in. At the end of the day, unless you are your own boss, you must consider your actions in the workplace. We live in a free country. We choose to work for others who have the power to keep us employed. So, no matter how disappointed you are right now, it’s still not the time to wear a Scarlet E.

What do you think?


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  1. It’s not wise to tell people to “shut up and be grateful” for the jobs they have. This sort of advice is exactly what corporations love. An employee who is scared of being put out onto the street for complaining about mistreatment is an employee who won’t report labor law violations, will willingly work unpaid overtime, and keep his or her mouth shut about sexual harassment. Sure, complaining about “no more free bagels” is silly; but complaining about the loss of a perk you were promised when hired is certainly no reason to fire someone. I agree with “Name” that the reason to keep your mouth shut is not because an lowly employee is inappropriately entitled, but because the bosses have all the power, and can fire you at any time, for any reason.

  2. As the victim of a recent layoff, I much rather have given up the bagels on Friday or taken a pay cut than lose the job. People need to get real, because companies don't have to struggle to keep good people any longer, so the perks are gonna go. Be thankful you have a job (if you do) and don't whine!

  3. As the victim of a recent layoff, I much rather have given up the bagels on Friday or taken a pay cut than lose the job. People need to get real, because companies don't have to struggle to keep good people any longer, so the perks are gonna go. Be thankful you have a job (if you do) and don't whine!

  4. As the victim of a recent layoff, I much rather have given up the bagels on Friday or taken a pay cut than lose the job. People need to get real, because companies don't have to struggle to keep good people any longer, so the perks are gonna go. Be thankful you have a job (if you do) and don't whine!

  5. “We live in a free country. We choose to work for others who have the power to keep us employed.” I disagree. The vast majority of us do not choose to work for others who have the power to keep us employed. We work for them precisely because they have the power, and we do not. Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to keep your complaints to yourself in the workplace. This is not because employees don't deserve the same perks that their bosses receive, but because the bosses have all the power, and can fire whomever they choose, whenever they like.

  6. Great post! I thought everyone had realized that we are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” IF we can afford and justify the expense. Entitlement left the building long ago…right behind job security.


  7. I disagree that simply because an employee expects to continue recieving perks or a certain schedule that was negotiated, that they feel inappropriately entitled. Sure they feel entitled, but if an employer promised a certain schedule or perk (that possibly made the person choose that company instead of another one) then it's not ok to just cut them off. If it's necessary to cut them, at least offer something to the employee instead (ie. time off, etc) or say when it will be reinstituted (ie. in 6 months we will re-evaluate, etc).

    I agree that people need to be aware that they'd rather lose perks like free lunches than lose their jobs. However, I hardly think that the employer would be ok with an employee deciding that since times are tough, they're going to stop showing up on Friday's to work another job and make more money. The employment agreement was originally made with benefits to both parties and employers are unilaterally changing the game without respect to employees, when employees cannot make similar changes at all.

    The real people who need to worry are the ones who are not delivering enough value to the company. If Iam already making the company triple my salary, then I come up with a new program that earns my annual salary over again, then I fully expect to be able to ask for and recieve a big raise or bonus. It's not about asking for more that's the problem, the problem is about not delivering enough.

  8. olivierBlanchard

    Great post, as always. I once had an employee who CONSTANTLY complained about her bonus being harder to hit every year. “Oh, how awful it is to be me, how unfair, I have worked hard here for five long years and this change is going to make my bonus so much harder to get. This sucks,” etc.

    What this employee failed to understand (even after it was pointed out to her) was that everyone was in the same boat. Worse yet, everyone knew that she made more money than the rest of her team. So there she was, driving a very nice car, living in a nice house, making more money than everyone else, complaining incessantly about how unfair it was that HER bonus was so much harder to hit now.

    This didn't exactly make her popular.

    Especially when she started finding reasons to leave early every day and take long lunches. (Because, as she rationalized it, “since I stand to make less money now, I am entitled to a little more “me time”'.)


    People like that always baffle me. :D

    • Me too Olivier! I feel like many people who earn solid livings are completely unaware of how they are being perceived by others when they make comments like that. I had a woman who cried when she found her compensation was changing. Instead of making $280K/year, she was going to only make $230K. Her subsequent sour attitude in the office eventually got her on the short list for layoffs – which happened. AND, the company changed the severance policy that had been in place, so she got much less than in previous layoffs too.

      People don't always think it through….

  9. If you work in a workplace where your co-workers have seen good friends let go due to cutbacks, I would seriously advise NOT complaining about the fact they're not buying lunch any more if you want to maintain good relations.

  10. My industry stopped perks years ago. Back when they were still common place, the entitlement mentality was the norm amoungst the work force. When things got tight and the extras slowed down/stopped, the sense of outrage from people was comical. A good paycheck and benefits was no longer good enough.

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