What Is ‘Quiet Quitting’ and How To Deal WIth It

A man quiet quitting his job

‘Quiet quitting’ is the buzzword of the moment. To some employers, it’s seen as the antithesis of hard work and a commitment to your role. A toxic apathy towards work in general caused by long-term, remote working and the influence of Gen Z.

But for many quiet quitters, it’s a form of rebellion against the expectation to endure long hours in return for inadequate remuneration and little recognition. For others, it’s merely a way to set boundaries in the hope of obtaining the holy grail of a fair work / life balance.

What exactly is quiet quitting?

The term ‘quiet quitting’ took off after Zaiad Khan posted a video on TikTok. An engineer based in New York, Zaiad records himself sitting on the subway juxtaposed with scenes of leafy streets and the city’s infamous skyline. Here he says,

I recently learned this term quiet quitting, where you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life”.

Since then, his TikTok has gained over 3.5 million views and sparked a flurry of people sharing their own experience of quiet quitting. The media and academics around the world have also responded discussing its potential impact on our world of work.

Despite what the term infers, it doesn’t have anything to do with quitting at all. As Zaiad suggests, it’s only fulfilling your immediate duties as required by your role. It’s not arriving at work early or staying late, answering emails or phone calls out-of-hours, or volunteering for non-compulsory projects. Work is viewed as a list of tasks for you to tick off in order to be paid. It isn’t what drives you and it’s certainly not your life.


Is quiet quitting actually a thing, or is it all hysteria?

The term ‘quiet quitting’ may be new, but the practice is not. We all have worked with someone where they’re neither ‘actively engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’.

Actively engaged employees are passionate and committed to their work and company. Whereas, actively disengaged employees are often vocal about their dissatisfaction and already have one foot out the door looking for other roles.

In the middle are the quiet quitters. Stuck in engagement limbo, they do their job and that’s it. They don’t make an extra effort to deliver above what’s required, nor is their work sub-standard.

For larger businesses, you’re always going to have some employees actively disengaged or are quiet quitters. It only becomes a major issue when a large proportion of our workforce is made up of people who fall into these categories.

Unfortunately, it looks like this is now the case. Gallup found more than 50% of the American workforce are quiet quitters. With over half of your workforce doing the bare minimum, it’s not surprising business owners and HR leaders are concerned for its long-lasting impact on company culture and revenue generation.


The perfect storm

Gallup identified a significant increase in quiet quitters during the second half of 2021. Around the same time, the full extent of pandemic-induced pressures and the great resignation were gathering pace.

The impact this period had on our mental health is demonstrated in The Australia and New Zealand Autonomy of Work Index 2021. Here, it was found work-related stressors were associated with 92% of serious mental health concerns within our workplaces. The report also stated 77% of employees experienced burnout at least once in 2020.

The pandemic also forced many of us to reevaluate our priorities. It highlighted our own immortality and the importance of family and social connection. As a consequence, large numbers of us left our jobs and our professions in search of more fulfilled lives – dubbed the great resignation.

Those who were left often had to take on additional responsibilities and tasks, leading to further workplace stress. Shut borders and chronic skill shortages meant it was (and still is) increasingly difficult to backfill the roles of those who left for greener pastures.

All of this combined with most office-based staff working remotely, feelings of isolation and detachment from our workplace thrived. It created a perfect storm driven by burnout, resentment and a demand for a healthy work / life balance – exemplified through the viral reach of social media.


And what about quiet firing?

‘Quiet quitting’ isn’t the only quiet practice happening in workplaces. Another buzzword that popped up in response is ‘quiet firing’. Like quiet quitting, it’s been happening for some time. It’s when a manager either deliberately, or unintentionally, creates an environment where the employee feels there’s no other option but to quit.

Quiet quitting ranges from outright bullying to less obvious behaviour, such as restricting someone’s access to professional development opportunities, pay increases and opportunities for interesting or varied work.

Reasons why a manager is quietly firing include:

It can be strategic.
The company needs to save costs and chooses to quietly fire its employees. In this situation, there’s the hope some staff will self select themselves out of their roles, reducing the need for redundancy payouts.

It can be personal.
A manager just doesn’t like someone. If this person is still performing their job adequately and doesn’t warrant performance management, a manager may resort to other tactics to force them out.

It’s due to a lack of training and ability.
Being an effective people manager doesn’t come naturally for everyone. A manager may inadvertently quietly fire someone if they don’t know how to have difficult conversations, so they just avoid them. Or, they might be great at their job, but not so great at being able to coach and mentor others.

It can be from a lack of time.
Their workload and / or the number of staff they manage doesn’t allow them to invest the time and effort needed for each employee. So some are forgotten and left to their own devices.


Quiet quitting and quiet firing are not OK

With less or no face-to-face time with our managers and colleagues, quiet quitting and quiet firing have become much easier to do. However, both behaviours have significant negative impacts to the company and the people directly involved.

If quiet quitting means other team members are forced to take on a greater workload, rather than sharing it equally around – this then exposes these employees to additional workplace stress, and risk of growing resentment, as well as damage to the company’s culture.

There are also professions where choosing not to go ‘above and beyond’ has major consequences. For instance, how comfortable would you be to put your life in the hands of a doctor or police officer who was quiet quitting.

Not only that, quiet quitting a job can have a negative impact on the quitter. We spend a significant portion of our lives working. So, if you no longer experience a sense of pride in your work, work becomes a grind you suffer through, and you start to check out more and more – it’s not a good or sustainable place to be. 

In terms of quiet firing, it may seem like the easy way out rather than addressing issues professionally. However, it can breed a toxic culture company-wide, going beyond those directly involved. It can also open your company to risk of fair work claims, as well as losing top talent to competitors.


What can HR do about quiet quitting and quiet firing

Eliminate the expectation of working long hours.
Your employees shouldn’t have to quietly quit in order to set boundaries. The pandemic has brought the importance of keeping ourselves healthy to the forefront, both physically and mentally. So, a culture that rewards employees frequently working long hours and punishes those that don’t increases the risk of stress and burnout, which is ultimately detrimental to our health.

A culture like this doesn’t benefit the company either. Numerous studies have shown working longer hours doesn’t equate to getting more work done. For example, one study found managers were unable to identify between staff who worked 80 hours a week to those that just pretended to.

Establish clear pathways and opportunities for career progression.
If employees feel there’s no future for them at your company, they’re likely to disengage. Giving them ways to grow professionally helps them to stay motivated and emotionally invested in your company.

Implement processes where all roles are advertised internally first, and give preference to internal candidates. Plus, if their application isn’t successful, provide constructive feedback as to why, and advice on how they can be successful in the future.

Set clear expectations of what the role entails.
Ensure someone’s job description reflects the reality of the role. Sometimes, a person’s responsibilities are more fluid than their job description. It might also omit the fact they’ll need to take on adhoc work in addition to their core responsibilities. Or it could be a case that the job description hasn’t been reviewed in years and is now outdated.

One’s responsibilities should be clearly communicated. So, there’s no chance of confusion or misunderstanding between managers and their staff as to what’s expected.

Train people managers.
The adage, “people leave managers, not companies’ is true for both staff that leave outright and those who instead stay by quiet quitting. Give your managers the tools they need to effectively manage their direct reports by offering continuous training, as well as providing support and mentorship opportunities. 

Actively enforce an anti-bullying workplace policy.
Most companies have some sort of anti-bullying workplace policy in place. However, if it’s not actively enforced where complaints are ignored or the person bullying gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist – it’s worthless. There’s no excuse for this toxic behaviour. Letting people get away with it, regardless of their function or seniority, is unacceptable. It’ll cause irreparable damage to those bullied, the company’s culture and its reputation as an employer.

Officially establish regular communication opportunities.
Set regular, compulsory cadences of communication between managers and their direct reports. Encourage honest responses to how they feel about their jobs, workload and any other challenges they’re facing.

We underestimate the amount of formal and informal interaction we had with each other pre pandemic. It’s easy for this to fall away when we’re not in physical proximity to each other. Giving the chance for people to be heard minimises the opportunity for quiet quitting.

Quiet quitting and quiet firing are nothing new, but their commonality of this behaviour is. It’s important for HR leaders to help establish a culture where overworking, bullying and mismanagement are not tolerated, while professional development, support and communication are encouraged.

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