"Quiet quitting": Five things for employers to think about

Author: Stephen Simpson

The unique combination of the coronavirus pandemic, deteriorating economic conditions, rise in flexible working (particularly hybrid/remote working) and increased awareness of the importance of maintaining wellbeing/good mental health has seen the concept of "quiet quitting" gaining traction. What steps - if any - should employers take to tackle this phenomenon?

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1. What is quiet quitting?

Despite the finality of the term, quiet quitting is not in fact a worker giving up their job.

Instead, the term has been coined to mean an individual doing the basics to fulfil the requirements of their role but nothing more.

In other words, the worker:

  • sticks to the functions described in their job description;
  • works only their contractual working hours; and
  • avoids helping their employer out with additional tasks outside their usual remit (which they might previously have done for little or no additional reward or recognition).

While the concept has recently been picking up steam on social media and in the press, it is nothing new. For example, "work to rule" is a well-recognised trade union tactic in the context of industrial action short of a strike.

2. What are the signs of quiet quitting?

There are a myriad of potential signs that a worker is quiet quitting. Some of the more likely symptoms are:

It's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care . . . Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime, so where's the motivation? . . . My only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

Peter Gibbons in "weirdly prescient" 90s workplace comedy Office Space

  • a reduction in productivity or a slowdown in the pace at which the worker meets objectives/targets;
  • a reluctance, or repeated failure, to attend meetings (particularly hybrid/remote meetings);
  • disengagement from group activities (for example ideas sessions or team social events);
  • a change in attitude or enthusiasm (for example an increase in negative comments about their employer);
  • a decrease in initiative-taking (for example waiting to be given work in circumstances in which their workload does not fill their working hours); and
  • becoming less available to colleagues or customers (for example a noticeable reluctance to answer emails, internal messages or phone calls).

It may be useful for the HR department (and/or other relevant departments such as employee relations and wellbeing specialists) to liaise with senior leaders and line managers to ensure that they can identify any telltale signs of a quiet quitter.

3. What are the potential reasons for quiet quitting?

There are a number of potential underlying causes of quiet quitting, some of which are outside the employer's control but some of which the employer can identify and tackle.

...the problem of 'overwork' or 'burnout' is a company, manager, and individual issue. Each of these stakeholders plays a role.

Josh Bersin in Why quiet quitting is a really bad (dumb) idea

Possible reasons for quiet quitting include:

  • workers recalibrating their work-life balance in the wake of the pandemic;
  • the inexorable rise of hybrid/remote working;
  • employee burnout after what everyone has been through in the last few years;
  • pressure on staff because of the squeezing of employers' budgets;
  • the rise in the cost of living leading to real terms pay cuts for workers;
  • perceptions among the workforce of a lack of career opportunities; and
  • the preamble to an employee's resignation (for example if they are less invested in the organisation once they have decided to seek employment elsewhere).

4. Can quiet quitting actually be a good thing?

Given some of the terms being bandied about on social media and in the press - for example "downing tools", "doing the bare minimum" and "mentally checking out" - it is tempting for employers to target staff who are displaying the telltale signs of the quiet quitter (see What are the signs of quiet quitting?).

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However, treating quiet quitting as a conduct or performance issue is not the solution in the vast majority of cases. After all, an individual who is still fulfilling the basic functions of their role is not committing misconduct or underperforming.

There may be legitimate reasons why a worker is rethinking when and how they work. They may have had a health scare or lost someone close to them during the pandemic. Their stage of life may be dictating a change to their work-life balance, for example if they are a new parent or are approaching retirement.

This is where good line management comes into play. If a line manager spots that a worker is becoming demotivated, they can have a discussion with the worker to get a better understanding why they are feeling that way and what can be done to rectify the issue.

Individual steps could be something as simple as reducing an overloaded employee's workload, allowing them to change their working pattern, or tweaking their job role.

5. Retention issues can be linked to quiet quitting

As well as line managers tackling individual issues, senior leaders and HR need to work together to tackle any retention challenges, which may be linked to quiet quitting.

In our 2022 HR & Compliance Centre survey on key recruitment metrics, respondents highlighted these three methods as the most effective in tackling retention issues:

  • Increase to some salaries outside of annual salary review The cost-of-living crisis is, by far, the most common reason quoted by respondents for increasing salaries outside of an annual salary review. Many feel that, alongside the competitive market created as a result of high employment rates and a tight labour market, employees have the confidence to follow higher salaries. Others referenced the need to increase salaries where roles were difficult to fill and as such there was a strong desire to retain those they have.

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Our report covers key findings from the 2022 HR & Compliance Centre survey on key recruitment metrics.

XpertHR's benchmarking service has the full data for each question from this survey. Benchmarking subscribers can access data breakdowns by factors such as broad industry sector and organisation size.

  • Introduction of hybrid working options Respondents told us that employees now expect to see some level of flexibility on offer around their working patterns. The pandemic, they tell us, has seen employees re-assessing what matters, and work-life balance is now not just attractive in a job role, it is expected. While hybrid working may not be an option for some, there are other types of flexibility that can be offered, such as amended start and finish times, nine-day fortnights, and term-time working. Offering employees more autonomy around how they complete their work is a powerful way to build a connection that will not be attractive to leave.
  • Acting on findings from employee engagement surveys One respondent told us that "People leave people not companies, the more we can share in terms of purpose, trust and empowerment the higher the likelihood that our retention will improve," and this rings true especially in a challenging labour market. Demonstrating that employee engagement surveys are taken seriously and acted upon is an effective way of building a strong connection with employees.