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Don’t Jump to Conclusions: Why Your Employees May Be Quiet Quitting

Have you googled the term “quiet quitter” or “quiet quitting” recently? The sheer number of videos and other posts addressing it, analyzing it, complaining about it, lauding it, and advising on it on news sites and social media in the past 2 months is staggering.

Employees are upset that their coworkers have stopped pulling their weight. Companies are concerned about how the trend will impact productivity and planning. Analysts opine on the reasons behind the trend and suggest there are more accurate labels for it. Proponents cite reasons ranging from work/life balance to “stick it to the man.” Those who are against quiet quitting feel that if a worker is intentionally curbing his or her efforts, the worker is being dishonest and unfair to his or her coworkers and employer.

quiet quitting
Office Space (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Just in case you haven’t run across the term yet or haven’t seen one of the numerous TikTok videos by so-called quiet quitters, it’s been variously described using terms and phrases such as:

  • Setting boundaries
  • Not taking on additional work
  • Not going above and beyond
  • Doing the bare minimum
  • Stepping back from the rat race
  • Anti-hustle
  • Doing the work you are paid for

What it does not involve is actual quitting, which can be a little confusing until you get past the label and realize that “quiet quitters” have been around for about as long as there have been jobs to do. Think George Jetson getting busted by Mr. Spacely for sleeping on the job. Think Randal from Clerks. Think Maynard G. Krebs. Think Peter Gibbons from Office Space.    

While prototypical slacker characters like those generally don’t want attention drawn to their slacking, quiet quitters, as a group, want people to know they’re dialing back and why. Many, but not all, want or hope that if and as employers are impacted by their slower pace, they recognize the contributions their star performers have been making and take action to demonstrate their appreciation of those employees. Regardless of the precise motivation, quiet quitting seems to reflect a shift in employees’ attitudes that is often based on the feeling that their efforts are not valued by the employer proportionate to the impact on the employees’ lives.

Those who have posted their quiet quitting stories on social media cite poor compensation, excessive work hours and poor work/life balance, and a lack of communication or support from managers as reasons. But when you have a member of your team who hits the brakes and stops putting forth effort the company counts on, it does not really matter whether he or she is engaging in a quiet quit or just some old-fashioned slacking. Regardless of the reason behind the slowdown, the impact of slackers or quiet quitters in a real-world workplace is a serious matter, and a rash of quiet quitting should signal a disconnect between employer and workforce that, if not addressed, can lead to problems with employee retention. That, in turn, will negatively impact company performance. The trend is certainly a troubling one for employers that are already dealing with workforce difficulties brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic.

Office Space in particular is a bit of a cautionary tale about what can happen when employees become disenchanted and frustrated. It’s a 1999 release, but watching it again recently, the reasons that main character Peter and other characters engage in what is currently termed “quiet quitting” are not all that dissimilar from the reasons current employees cite. Peter’s manager and nemesis, Bill Lumberg, regularly hits him up last minute for after-hours work and has no regard for any work/life boundaries. As the company prepares for and engages in downsizing, the consultants hired to interview and select employees for layoff clearly have no idea what the employees actually do. Another character finally loses it after a series of slights, including someone taking his stapler, being denied a piece of cake at an office birthday party, and his desk being moved to the basement storage area.

The movie is, of course, an exaggeration, but the overarching theme is that the employees of Initech feel they are meaningless cogs in the organization’s machinery.   

But the reasons for quiet quitting—workload, pay, a lack of communication or support—do provide some insight as to how employers may be able to prevent or reverse a trend.

  • Compensation. It goes without saying that pay is a significant component of employee satisfaction. Across-the-board raises may not be feasible, but discretionary bonuses for high performers who are consistent in their efforts may provide a morale boost and incentive to maintain their pace. But even apart from cash compensation, gestures such as extra paid break time or additional paid-time-off hours can be meaningful, particularly to employees who have put in extra hours and days.
  • Recognition. Even if additional compensation is not feasible, letting an employee know  the company is aware of and appreciates the hard work he or she is doing can help foster a sense of team and keep the employee from feeling that no one notices his or her efforts. 
  • Communication. Where you notice a marked, sudden downturn in employee performance, engagement, or output, it can be a sign of quiet quitting. Reaching out to find out what’s behind the downturn not only lets employees know that slowdowns will not go unnoticed but also can let an employee who feels disconnected and unappreciated know that you are paying attention. Where warranted, reminding an employee of performance expectations and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations may prompt him or her to return to levels of engagement.
  • Resolution. Talking with employees regularly, both as a group and individually, can go a long way toward letting employees know their employer sees them as more than cogs in a machine. It can also give employees the opportunity to express concerns with matters such as compensation, workload, and work/life boundaries and balance and you the opportunity to address them and reach some agreement or understanding with the employees to resolve the issue.

So, if you haven’t touched base with your employees for a while, it couldn’t hurt to reach out because they’re hearing about the quiet quitting trend and may be watching Office Space, too—just hopefully not on work time.

Becky L. Kalas is an attorney at FordHarrison. She represents employers in labor and employment matters in the courts, in arbitrations, and in government agency proceedings, including with the EEOC, the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Illinois Department of Labor, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, and other agencies at the federal, state and local level.