What Is ‘Quiet Quitting’ And How Should Leaders Respond?

Jan 02, 2023 7 Min Read
tired man quiet quitting

Image is from freepik.com by @wayhomestudio

The latest buzz phrase coming out of social media is the concept of “quiet quitting,” whereby burned-out or unsatisfied employees put forth the least amount of effort possible to keep their paychecks. The rationale for this workplace approach is that work is not the most important thing in people’s lives, they shouldn’t put in any extra time without compensation, and they should have freedom to pursue other endeavors outside of their employment.

This concept really jumped out to me for a few reasons, mainly for its lack of newness. If you’re old enough to remember George Costanza of Seinfeld hiding under his desk or pretending to be annoyed or looking busy to avoid assignments, then you know we’ve seen this before. The concept is also known as “phoning it in” or better yet, the 80-20 rule, where 20% of employees are doing 80% of the work.

The question is whether the 2022 version of this concept is somehow different and whether managers and business owners need to take a likewise different approach, especially in the wake of the Great Resignation and with the growth of the gig economy.

Workplace happiness is a new concept

About 30 years ago, the concept of workplace “happiness” was non-existent. Employers expected you to be grateful for an opportunity and you were expected to go the extra mile to get ahead. This meant coming in early and staying late to show your commitment. Workers would compete to be the last person to leave the office in the evening. And, of course, there was no expectation of receiving overtime for these extra hours.

There were also many management styles that would not be acceptable in today’s work environment. For example, managers were often encouraged to fire people when taking on a new position to show the team who was boss, even if it wasn’t warranted. It was also acceptable in many companies to yell and berate employees for poor work, both privately and in front of peers. This type of tough love made the concept of quiet quitting much less appealing.

Another management ploy was to pit workers against each other to compete for one promotion. Hopefully, you were smart enough to recognize the competition and who you were up against, and you had to battle accordingly. Workers were encouraged “pick up the pen” and take on a new assignment that might be out of their job description but that showed their commitment and desire for that promotion. And ultimately, if you didn’t get the promotion over your peer, you were often a “dead man walking.”

The rise in mobile adds to workplace unhappiness

In the early 2000s, I started my own consulting business, about the time mobile communications really got going. So, while I was able to create my own workplace culture, clients started expecting companies to be available 24/7/365, since they knew you had a mobile device on you at all times.

That scenario has expanded exponentially with improved technology, project management apps, and social media. Everyone is actually checking their phones nonstop, so why shouldn’t managers and clients expect a rapid response? Covid and the rise of Zoom (and other virtual meeting tools) also contributed to the expectation that workers should be constantly online and reachable.

A perfect storm for quiet quitting

It’s clear that the 2022 version of quiet quitting is slightly different from the 1990s’ version. The constant pinging of texts, Slack and WhatsApp messages, Insta posts, LinkedIn boasts, and now TikTok reels has taken its toll, especially on younger workers. While Gen Zers crave Instagram likes, knowing they can’t escape their job in a meaningful way is causing this backlash. “Hey, if you can ping me anytime, I can quiet quit.”

This was occurring pre-Covid, but the mental trauma of surviving lockdown took a major toll, which we don’t yet know the full extent of. For younger single workers, lockdown meant extended loneliness and isolation. This created a pent-up demand to interact and live life outside of a job that is still being conducted online. “I survived Covid to now stay alone in my apartment and do Zoom calls all day? Nope, I’m quiet quitting.”

These differences are real and should be respected and handled appropriately. Business owners and managers should understand that the gig economy is providing opportunities for workers to make the same or more money without the structure and time commitments of full-time employment. And many workers, especially young ones, are willing to live without some of the security and benefits of a full-time job.

Read more: How Quiet Quitting Became The Next Big Phase in The Great Resignation 

Young workers also tell themselves they don’t need to climb the corporate ladder to be happy in life. But it takes a certain amount of money to live in modern America with things we expect: home ownership, two cars, two vacations a year, eating out, and paying for college. If you don’t want to work hard to reach the top, you may not have the resources to live the life you want. But, maybe there is a middle ground?

Top 10 tips for managing quiet quitting

Here are a few ideas for managers to follow that are legitimate ways to both improve employee happiness and protect your workplace culture:

1. No Sunday emails. We all get them and probably have sent them. You’re trying to get ahead on your week, so you fire off emails on Sunday to your team. That only elicits anxiety, stress, and resentment. It better be a firestorm, or just wait until Monday.

2. No weekend work. Again, unless the matter is so urgent, which it rarely is, do not task your employees with work over the weekend—unless of course, that is their regular work schedule.

3. Cut down on the number of meetings and their length. Meetings should be work sessions or about strategy—not status checks, for the most part. Managers need to ask themselves why they are calling for a meeting and whether it is really productive. Start with the premise that no meeting should last more than 30 minutes and go from there.

4. Do you really need Slack (or other collaboration tools)? No explanation needed.

5. Limit workplace “fun activities.” Sure, the yoga class and happy hour seem like a good idea, but many workers want to do yoga and have happy hour on their own time and with their own friends. Maybe just give them back an hour of their time.

6. Set goals based on achieving milestones and quality of work. The fact is that with remote working you can’t know if your employee is working a full week, but does it matter? If they know what is the assignment is and when it is due and the work is top-notch, isn’t that enough?

7. No team building exercises. No explanation needed.

8. Give praise—it’s free. Many people want to know they are appreciated, valued, and respected. The current job market means you can’t tell an employee to “lump it or leave it,” so make sure they know you value them and their work. It just takes effort.

9. Pay more money—it’s not free but worth it. Raises and bonuses should be given more often and more freely. The old annual review and basic 3% cost of living increases should be a thing of the past. Of course, don’t reward someone for not giving 100%, but workers are less likely to quiet quit if they see financial rewards for their efforts.

10. Fire quiet quitters. At some point, if an employee is unhappy or not doing adequate work, it may be time to part ways—especially with those who spread negativity and disharmony throughout the team. Quiet quitting can affect other employees who might still want to give 110% and move up through the company. While workers may have the desire, and the right, to be happier in their jobs than in the past, they don’t have the right to have a detrimental impact on their employer, especially when that employer is a smaller business.

What will tomorrow's workplace look like?

Who knows what the future of productivity, remote work, and the gig economy will bring. Regardless, as employers and managers, we need to evolve with the times, especially with the new, current generation of workers, who have different ideas about financial rewards, equity and inclusion, and their lifestyles.

The fact remains, however, that our capitalist system rewards hard work and effort. There is no getting around the fact that higher paying jobs are harder to get and scarcer than lower-level jobs, where quiet quitting may go unnoticed.

There is also no disputing that the “American Dream” is not getting any less expensive. Workers need to understand the repercussions of quiet quitting or getting fired for it.

This was first published in Forbes.

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Neil Hare is an attorney and President of GVC Strategies, where he specialises in small business policy, advocacy, and communications campaigns. He has run small business outreach campaigns for major organisations such as Visa, MasterCard, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Neil is a writer and expert on communications and business strategy and is the author of two novels, An Animal Cries and God in Hell’s Kitchen. 


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