There’s a new term floating around for an old workplace challenge. “Quiet quitting” is the popular new catchphrase to describe employees who don’t actually quit but just continue to perform the essential requirements of their jobs and don’t go above and beyond or put in extra effort to stand out as star performers.
At first glance, one might think “quiet quitting” sounds a lot like just doing one’s job. And that’s technically true, but the problem (from an employer’s perspective) is that quiet quitting represents a total lack of employee engagement. Engaged employees look for ways to go the extra mile; they want to excel at their jobs, whether because they want to advance their careers and enjoy the prestige of doing a great job or because they are firm believers in the mission of the organization.
Unengaged employees doing just enough to get by is nothing new. The concept was explored comedically in the 1999 cult classic Office Space, but workers doing “just enough to get by” is as old as work itself.
Still, the new name for this age-old habit suggests an uptick in incidences of quiet quitting, as well as employer awareness of and concern over the practice.
In this feature, we explore some of the potential causes of the increase in quiet quitting and some potential strategies to combat it.
Labor Market Woes
One of the factors that has likely contributed to an increase in awareness of quiet quitting is the tight labor market employers are facing. Many companies are happy to find just about anyone to fill an open position. Others aren’t even able to find any interested candidates, let alone an adequate candidate.
As employers lower their standards in the hiring process, it’s inevitable they’ll end up with a greater proportion of employees who just aren’t engaged in the work. Some of those won’t perform the job adequately. Others will fulfill the basic requirements of the job but no more (the quiet quitters). In a different labor market, employers would likely terminate the first group and at least consider terminating the quiet quitters. But in the current labor market, they may find they can’t afford to let quiet quitters go. And many employees are fully aware of that leverage.
Remote work is another potential culprit in the quiet quitter trend, and that has to do with the very nature of remote work. If employees are physically working out of an office next to their colleagues and their bosses, they’re generally not going to want to look like they have nothing to do. Maybe employees can get all their required work done in the first 3 hours of the day. If they’re working in the office, they probably can’t get away with napping or running errands the rest of the day. But a remote employee might be able to do just that without being noticed.
In other words, there is often a gap between the amount of time employees take to complete their baseline job requirements and the amount of time they’re expected to be “at work.” Employees working remotely have more opportunity to fill that gap with nonwork items, while those in physical work settings may feel pressure to spend that time going above and beyond and focusing on work.
Burnout is another major factor in the increase in quiet quitting. A tight labor market means many employers struggle to find enough staff, which means existing staff are asked to do more to keep the business running in good order. On top of that, nearly 3 years of COVID shakeups, supply chain issues, and other sources of disruption have left many workers with their heads spinning as they try to cope with an incredibly dynamic environment.
Overworked and over-stressed employees are highly susceptible to burnout, and that burnout tends to turn into lower morale and lower engagement.
The Engagement Gap
Fortunately, it’s not hard to understand why employees are quietly quitting. There may be a variety of reasons employees engage in quiet quitting, but ultimately, it can all be traced back to a lack of engagement. Engagement is the exact opposite of quiet quitting. Engaged employees want to go the extra mile; they want to advance their careers and see the company and its mission succeed.
The good news for employers is that engagement isn’t some intrinsic characteristic employees either have or don’t have. Sure, some employees seem more eager to please and more engaged than others, but that doesn’t mean engagement is static. After all, plenty of formerly engaged employees turn into quiet quitters.
A key first step in boosting employee engagement is actively listening to workers.
- Are they feeling engaged?
- What, if anything, are they unhappy about at work?
- Are they buying into the company mission?
- Do they even understand the company mission?
- What are their long-term goals?
- Do they feel like they have the opportunity to realize those goals in their current role or in the organization more broadly?
- Do they feel like their compensation is adequately tied to their performance?
Employers and managers might be surprised by what they hear if they ask these questions, but once they identify the key sources of a lack of engagement, it becomes a question of employer commitment and execution to address the problem.
If an employer determines it will take a drastic increase in compensation to spur solid engagement, the employer may determine it simply can’t afford it. The same is true for spending time, money, and effort on improving employee training opportunities.
Employers should appreciate, however, that while it is their workers who demonstrate aren’t engaged, employers themselves play a key role in increasing employee engagement and thereby reducing quiet quitting.
Quiet quitting is far from a new trend. As long as there’s been work, there have been employees who have done just enough to get by without putting in extra effort. Employers can’t be too upset with that practice. After all, if they want to guarantee more from their employees, they could make that “more” a required part of the job.
But for employers looking to turn quiet quitters into eager go-getters, increasing engagement is crucial. What steps are you taking to increase engagement among your employees?
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.