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What we’ve got wrong about quiet quitting

The phrase has leapt into the business lexicon this year, but how helpful is the term, how new is the phenomenon it describes – and is this actually problematic for employers?
Woman closes her laptop while the sun beams through the window. Work is over for the day.

It’s a term that’s taken the world of work by storm over the past few months. So-called quiet quitting has quickly become part of the zeitgeist and it has employers and HR experts worried, as more and more dissatisfied employees decide that any discretionary effort they put in will never be recognised, let alone rewarded, by their companies.

There is nothing new in working to rule, of course, and employees should never be expected to exceed what they’re contractually obliged to do. The term could be seen as a new spin on an approach that many people have long applied to their work, so is it really a problem? And should we be labelling it as ‘quitting’ anyway?

“There’s nothing new about quiet quitting,” declares Anna Rasmussen, founder and CEO of OpenBlend, a platform designed to improve workplace conversations. 

For her and Aliza Sweiry, UK managing director at global staffing agency Aquent, it’s an unnecessary neologism that ill suits the concept of upholding workers’ rights. 

Sweiry argues that the term implies that the alternative – doing unpaid work outside your contractual hours and/or responsibilities (and never feeling able to refuse it) – is somehow normal when it shouldn’t be. 

The benefits of branding

“While the term has set TikTok ablaze and is directed mostly at members of generation Z and remote workers, I firmly believe it’s just a new name for an age-old issue: employee disengagement,” she says. 

But this situation has become worse for employers in recent times, largely because of the extreme stress that the pandemic has placed on most organisations and their employees. Many workers performed Herculean tasks to support their employers during the depths of the Covid crisis, often with little recognition.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance to people of preserving their health, both physical and mental,” Sweiry says. “Younger workers in particular are focusing on maintaining a better work/life balance. Many have grown weary of feeling unappreciated and under-compensated for going above and beyond in their jobs. Quiet quitting is simply a way for some to take back control. They’re prioritising their free time over the additional requests from their bosses, such as responding to emails outside their contracted hours.”

Presenting the act of working strictly to the terms of your employment contract as ‘quitting’ doesn’t feel like a constructive approach to Beth Raine-Thrall, senior associate and solicitor in the employment team at law firm Nelsons. 

She argues that “there is a difference between employees in search of work/life balance who still work diligently during their contracted hours and those who are doing the ‘bare minimum’ and thus quiet quitting. The latter approach can be combated, but the former will depend very much on the employer’s culture.”

Short-term pain, long-term gain

For employers, the main concern about quiet quitting seems obvious: workers who’ve previously been willing to go the extra mile to help their employer out in a crisis may feel more emboldened to refuse further requests to work a little longer at times of need. They may also be growing more assertive in drawing a line between working hours and their personal time, potentially to the detriment of the business.

But a happy workforce is, in the long run, a more productive workforce, meaning that employers should sacrifice short-term pain for long-term gain, according to Raine-Thrall. 

Businesses can encourage employees to take back their time in a fair and productive way by making expectations clear

“Letting employees take back their time helps to promote better work/life balance. This in turn should mean that they are more likely to be engaged and productive during their contracted hours,” she says. 

That doesn’t mean allowing a free-for-all in which the employer cedes control of how and when people should be working. Rather, it can be a negotiated, sensible settlement that works for both parties. 

Raine-Thrall explains: “A business can encourage employees to take back their time in a fair and productive way by making its expectations clear. Providing agreed ways of taking back time, such as flexible and agile working, along with enhanced family-friendly policies and wellbeing days can also help to set and maintain boundaries.”

How to stem the tide

If an employer tries to resist its employees’ efforts to reassert control over, it risks alienating them further and inciting an adversarial us-versus-them ethos. 

“As we roll into an economic crisis, more quiet quitting will take place,” Sweiry predicts. “It’s possible that employees who are at their wits’ end will consider this a safer option than handing in their notice and finding alternative employment in a potentially unstable job market.”

Rather than seeing an upsurge in quiet quitting in your organisation as a ‘them’ problem, it’s worth considering it as a ‘you’ problem, Rasmussen advises. She points to recent research by US leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman showing that the most ineffective managers have three-and-a-half times more quiet quitters reporting to them on average than the best managers have in their teams. 

“Surely that’s all the evidence we need to prove that quiet quitting is not an employee issue but a managerial one,” Rasmussen says.

If you’re seeing an increase in quiet quitting in your business, it’s worth thinking about whether you’re approaching the situation from the wrong direction as a leader. Rather than seeking to address the problem by cracking down, it’s worth thinking about what could be at fault in the organisation if so many people feel that they have no choice but to metaphorically down tools. Taking the time to fix that could prevent broader problems from arising and end up engendering a happier, more productive workforce.

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