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Quiet quitting: Is it here to stay and how can employers cope?

Quiet quitting is a trend that emerged last year as employers struggled to fill vacant positions after the Great Resignation, and as the economy picked up post-pandemic. Quiet quitting is the term used to describe when an employee psychologically disengages from work. In other words, it is the notion that an employee is unmotivated, disinterested, and checked-out at work; rather than resign, the person does only the bare minimum required to get by.

The concept of quiet quitting took hold most prominently in the summer of 2022 when a TikTok user posted a video of himself explaining the term, stating that quiet quitting is “where you’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond.” This idea resonated with employees across the country and the world. Employers in various industries may be affected by quiet quitting, but there are ways to evaluate and address the impact on your organization, considering both the performance and behavior of the individual employee, as well as the broader environment within the given organization.

Why is quiet quitting happening?

Survey data reflects that the decline in employee engagement is particularly related to lack of clarity of expectations, opportunities to learn and grow professionally, not feeling cared about at work, and a lack of connection to the organization’s mission or purpose. This data indicates that the root of the quiet quitting trend is likely employees feeling disconnected from their employers.

An employee who is a quiet quitter generally does not have supportive bonds with their colleagues, supervisor, or the organization. The SHRM Research Institute reported that 60 percent of responding HR professionals said management behavior was causing or enabling quiet quitting behavior. Where there is a lack of management engagement, communication issues, poor people management, poor supervisor support, and lack of accountability, employees are more likely to disconnect from their employers.

Similar research data indicates that the way an employee is treated by the manager with whom they interact the most is directly related to whether the employee chooses to quietly quit, and whether their psychological attachment to their organization is disconnected such that they stop bringing forward concerns or suggestions to improve the workplace. If managers fail to inspire, lead, or support their employees, not only will this lead to employee frustration, it can also result in employees thinking that no one will notice if their performance declines slowly over time.

The pandemic’s influence

In addition to issues of individual employee engagement and manager interaction, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced other economic and social factors that contributed to this trend. While large sectors of the economy experienced shutdowns and layoffs, expanded and extended unemployment benefits allowed employees to consider their employment opportunities with a greater level of scrutiny, putting pressure on wages, benefits, and other conditions of the positions themselves. Mobility between jobs was similarly affected, and many employers found themselves competing for a more demanding and discriminating pool of employees.

Some employees also found themselves reassessing their own priorities, as well as the attainability and reasonableness of workplace demands. They saw employers offering remote work and time off to attend to family illness, childcare, and other caregiving responsibilities, and now, post-pandemic, they may value, and in turn demand, greater work-life balance and flexibility than they had in the past.

As a result, where quiet quitting behavior may be driven by employee underperformance and workplace disengagement, employers may simultaneously be observing other employees setting boundaries and intentionally reducing workload or hours in response to other priorities and social factors.

How to cope

Addressing individual employee performance, or underperformance, is one approach to addressing and improving the quiet quitting dilemma. While employee performance management is not a new topic in and of itself, tackling this against the backdrop of quiet quitting can include:

  • evaluating actual employee output and not simply responding to perceived engagement issues;
  • ensuring that those performance categories at issue can be objectively measured;
  • ensuring that expectations have been clearly, and more recently, articulated, particularly in a “post-pandemic” environment where people may no longer be clear or consistent about the true expectations of a role; and
  • identifying roadblocks or resource issues, again, particularly where a “post-pandemic” environment may have introduced obstacles for employees, of which managerial staff are currently unaware.

In addition, employers should evaluate what organizational improvements may be necessary, and how they might be contributing to an environment that is enabling quiet quitting behavior. Employers can consider:

  • whether the company has fallen short in delivering upon promises made to employees regarding work-life balance, employee well-being, and other cultural considerations;
  • whether the organization has clearly defined, for itself, elements of organizational culture and ideal employee engagement;
  • whether the organization has prioritized what employees want and need as part of a productive and engaging workplace environment; and
  • whether managers are adequately performing in their roles of supporting employee performance and facilitating employee engagement.

Each employer and organization will have different strengths and opportunities to capitalize upon to address quiet quitting. It can be tempting to focus on individual employee underperformance, but to the extent that this is a broader trend, it is also an opportunity to identify organizational improvements that may be helpful, or even needed.

Shayda Le is a partner with Barran Liebman. She advises employers on a wide range of employment issues and litigation. 

Becky Zuschlag is a law clerk with Barran Liebman. She partners with attorneys in employment, labor relations and benefits practices. 

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in the preceding commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Daily Journal of Commerce or its editors. Neither author nor the DJC guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information published herein.