Another old thing with a still-new name, and perhaps new significance, is “quiet quitting.” Though as with most new terms not everyone agrees with its precise meaning, it seems to boil down to doing a job’s minimum, without extra effort or extra hours, usually along with a sense of detachment. As long as there have been jobs, there has been variation in how intensely they are worked, but now, with gaps as large as ever between official requirements and real or imagined expectations, it’s worthy of attention.
One management response gets that in “The quiet quitters are getting quiet fired: The silent war playing out in offices” (Victoria Wells, Financial Post, October 25th). The author calls quiet firing “passive-aggressive” and says it “subtly freezes out an employee by either avoiding one-on-one conversations, refusing to provide feedback, neglecting to share critical information needed to do a job, passing them over for a promotion or subjecting them to stingy raises – or no raise at all – while co-workers are awarded more.” For employees, often in this category because they consider themselves underpaid, “the effect can be demoralizing… which is exactly the point,” as it can provoke them to resign when they are unwanted. A fair, if not always the most optimal, response.
Two days later, we saw that “Quiet quitting gains steam across every major industry” (Jo Constanz, Benefit News). In response to a Qualtrics International survey of 9,000 “US full-time or part-time employees,” one of the strongest effects was in “the finance and insurance sector,” which in the previous year “claimed the highest share of engaged employees.” It is hard to tease out the effects of Covid and the subsequent worker’s market, but something is indeed happening.
Faster-paced employer actions are operating as well, exemplified as “Ford targets quiet quitters with new policy that could see underachievers lose their severance” (Christiaan Hetzsner, Fortune.com, published in Yahoo Finance October 31st). There, “veteran white-collar workers… face a stark choice if their managers deem them an underperformer,” as some will have a choice of receiving “a buyout now” or risking “failing a performance improvement program,” whereupon they would “lose all claim to a competitive severance package.” In other words, management wants them up or out. In contrast to the Wells piece, the workers here have over seven years on the job with unknown problems, as opposed to those usually under 30.
Maybe a carrot would work instead of a stick – or so implied Marguerite Ward on December 12th in Business Insider’s “The solution to low productivity and quiet quitting is simpler than most managers realize: It’s about making people feel that they matter.” “A sense of meaning” or something similar has scored remarkably high in studies of what’s important to workers, and Ward gave three suggestions for management to achieve that: “Dedicate time to checking in (with) your employees,” even by just saying the likes of “good morning” and “how are you?”; “Give positive feedback and be clear on areas for improvement,” the latter long hard for them to execute; and “Create a sense of connection among your team,” including expressing sincere gratitude. A start, and could help in some cases.
More recently we had two contributions. In “Managers must ‘solve this problem’ of quiet quitting, Davos leaders say,” in the January 17th MarketWatch, Weston Blasi reported on a panel discussion on “Quiet Quitting and the Meaning of Work” at the latest World Economic Forum meeting. At this high-profile venue, speakers reached at least partial agreement that “leaders and managers at companies are to blame for the recent surge in quiet quitting “more than anyone else.””
How about another new term, this one related to what we’ve been talking about? Well, “If You Aren’t Quiet Quitting, You May Have This Viral New Label,” (Veronika Bondarenko, The Street, also January 17th). “Resenteeism” is “the state of slowly growing more and more frustrated with one’s work arrangement,” or can be having “any unaddressed work-related annoyance.” It came to the fore with people unhappy they had to report to the office more than they would like. Resenteeism can but does not always spawn quiet quitting, and, as with the others, does not describe anything new.
What can we do about quiet quitting? The clearest solutions I can see are synchronizing official and unofficial expectations, praising workers more, zeroing in on the difference between production and hours worked, rediscovering constructive criticism, and implementing greater rewards for better or more voluminous labor. If everyone gets the same raises, has the same job security, has the same privileges, and knows that work performance doesn’t actually drive promotions, that is a recipe for doing less. People adapt to their environments. As for extra hours beyond clearly short-term occasional problems, they show either a human resources problem or workers’ fully voluntary choices. If companies said what they expected, that would come way down as well. The choice is theirs – if they want it.