Employee Engagement Employee Retention

What 'Quiet Quitting’ Tells Us About Modern Working Culture

If you’re an HR professional, you’ve probably heard a fair bit about quiet quitting at this point. 

The viral trend has been everywhere over the past few months, with even national news outlets reporting on the phenomenon. Everyone from people experts to CEOs have weighed in with their thoughts on the trend, and how companies should respond to it.

But zooming out a little, what can we learn from quiet quitting? What does the broad trend – and the visibility it’s gained among the world at large – tell us about the mindset of the current workforce? And how can these lessons help us as we look to shape culture at our companies into the next decade? 

What is Quiet Quitting, really?

Before we dive in, it’s worth looking at what quiet quitting really is, and what it isn’t.

The term first came to wider attention as a result of a viral TikTok post created by Zaid Khan, which now has over 3.5 million views. In it, he described ‘quiet quitting’ as a term for “not outright quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond. Still performing your duties, but no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”

In simple terms, ‘quiet quitters’ do what is required at work and nothing more, setting boundaries and saying no to unpaid extra hours, tasks that fall outside their job description, and extra effort. 

A lot of commentators have compared it to ‘work to rule’, a common tactic used by labor movements during disputes where members cease performing work that doesn’t fall strictly within their defined job descriptions.

The difference is that where work to rule is a collective action, quiet quitting is an individual choice. It also isn’t outwardly communicated to employers, as a work to rule action would be. Perhaps most importantly, work to rule is usually done with a goal in mind, such as securing better terms, while quiet quitting is seen as something of an end unto itself.

Others have argued that quiet quitting is simply disengagement or ‘coasting’ under a new name, and something that has been happening at companies for years. 

While there might be some truth to this, proponents of quiet quitting would point out that an employee who ‘quiet quits’ isn’t necessarily underperforming. Rather, they are working to the best of their abilities, but within very strict parameters, and not endeavoring to go beyond that.

What’s more, it’s important not to underestimate the power this effective ‘rebranding’ has had. By turning the action into a viral trend, quiet quitters have drawn more attention to it, which means it can spread more quickly and widely, and influence employees across different industries and companies.

Essentially, employee disengagement has gone viral, and people leaders shouldn’t underestimate what that tells us about the current realities of the workplace. With that in mind, let’s look at 6 key learnings that professionals in our field can take from the trend.

1.  ‘Hustle culture’ is a thing of the past

If ‘The Great Resignation’, the anti-work movement, and other recent trends hadn’t already killed ‘hustle culture’, quiet quitting might be the final death knell.

Like quiet quitting, hustle culture was very much a social trend, which arguably started in the early part of the 2000s. Simply put, it became fashionable to put in long hours, squeeze every ounce of productivity out of your day, and put your career at the centre of your universe. 

Of course, the obvious problem with this mentality is that for most people, the rewards for these efforts just aren’t there. Not everyone at the company can become the CEO, and expecting CEO-level commitment from every employee is always going to leave them feeling shortchanged. 

Added to that, the normalization of mass layoffs becoming the answer to any kind of slowdown meant that hustle culture devotees were making enormous sacrifices to help companies succeed, only to be left high and dry by them at the first sign of trouble.

The pandemic also played a massive role in changing things. A global crisis on such a huge scale, which affected the health and wellbeing of so many, prompted a lot of people to reflect on what they wanted out of life. And ‘work more’ wasn’t the answer.

More than anything else, though, the hustle mentality was detrimental to people’s health, with a rise in burnout and other mental and physical health issues caused by trying to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that there are signs that the new generation of workers is rejecting this worldview, and pushing for less hours, more boundaries, and a healthier relationship with work. 

Whether employers like this or not, it is what the current workforce wants, and quiet quitting is just the latest way they are making their feelings known. Companies which want to continue to attract top talent will need to be wise to this shift, and build less demanding, more sustainable models of working. 

This means getting used to hearing the word ‘no’, respecting personal boundaries, and getting rid of the expectation that employees should go above and beyond with no reward. Which is a challenge, because right now…

2. The disconnect between employee and employer expectations is larger than ever

To fully understand the ramifications of quiet quitting, it’s worth thinking about how something like this could become a trend in the first place. 

Why is simply doing your job as described in your job description considered such a revolutionary concept? 

The fact is that the rise of the hustle mentality was something a lot of companies took advantage of. They began to expect ‘above and beyond’ as the norm rather than the exception. Vague job descriptions left plenty of room for interpretation about hours, responsibilities, and what success looks like. And employees were sent the message that the only way to get ahead was to go the extra mile.

It’s not hard to see how this leads to a situation where employees become demoralized. When extra effort isn’t seen as ‘extra’ by management, employees feel taken for granted. When responsibilities go far beyond what they can handle, they feel overworked. And when they’re put in a position where they feel like they constantly have to question whether they’re doing enough, nothing ever feels like enough.

Quiet quitting merely highlights this disconnect between employer expectations and employee perceptions. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be such a giant chasm between how a role is defined on paper and what it looks like in reality. Going above and beyond should be something that is encouraged, but rewarded. Sadly, this isn’t the case at a lot of companies today. 

3. Psychological safety still isn’t a reality in most workplaces

A lot of the discourse around this topic has centered on the ‘quitting’ aspect of quiet quitting, but what about the ‘quiet’ part?

Think about this: if an employee is feeling undervalued, overworked, or disengaged, why are they jumping on a social trend instead of talking to you or their managers about it?

Quiet quitting is very much indicative of larger problems with openness and psychological safety in organizations. Employees who are going this route clearly aren’t willing to voice their concerns and dissatisfaction directly to their employers.

Why? It might be that they’ve tried before and received a negative reaction, or just found that nothing changed. Worse, they might be scared that being openly negative about the company will put their jobs under threat.

Whatever the specific reason, it definitely points to a problem with communication and trust. Employers who suspect employees are quietly quitting may need to take a serious look at their culture, and find ways to reopen the lines of communication with their team.

4. Companies aren’t making enough room for growth

The crux of quiet quitting is that employees are no longer prepared to go above and beyond because, frankly, they just don’t think it’s worth it.

This could be because they’re not seeing enough opportunities for advancement at their companies. Or if they are, the sacrifices they have to make in their personal lives are too great.

They may see the extra work, hours, and pressure that their managers have to deal with and conclude that it isn’t what they want, especially if the difference in salary is relatively small. 

If a promotion means a lot more work for only a little more money, don’t expect many people to want it.

This change in attitude isn’t new – it's been bubbling up for a while. A 2016 study found that only 1 in 5 millennials aspired to leadership positions. Again, this could be seen as a rejection of the hustle mentality. More and more employees seem to be coming to the conclusion that chasing promotions isn’t the route to fulfillment, and are happy to take less rewards for less responsibility.

One thing that many businesses miss, though, is that professional growth isn’t just about getting promoted. Just because an employee doesn’t want to become a manager, doesn’t mean that they don’t want to grow. For some people, growth might be more about learning new skills, taking on new projects and responsibilities, and developing their skill sets.

Companies need to take a look at both routes, and make sure they’re offering enough opportunity to really motivate employees.

5. Recognition is more important than ever

When it comes down to it, the quiet quitting trend largely points to a perceived imbalance between the expectations companies are putting on employees and what they’re getting in return.

Many people who are participating in this trend clearly feel that any extra effort they were putting into their jobs isn’t valued by their employers, so they’ve stopped doing it.

To help reengage these employees, and to prevent others on your team from following suit, you need to make recognition a pivotal part of your working culture, and ensure that any employees who do go the extra mile for you feel seen, acknowledged, and rewarded.

6. The working world is hugely divided right now

Finally, one of the reasons that quiet quitting has become such big news is because it’s such a divisive trend.

For some people, it’s a crisis. Less progressive leaders view it as further evidence that the new generation of workers is unmotivated and lazy, such as Dragon’s Den star Kevin O'Leary, who reacted to the trend by saying, “People that want to shut down their laptop at 5, want that balance in life, want to go to the soccer game, 9 to 5 only, they don’t work for me.”

Even those who are more sympathetic to employees who ‘quiet quit’ are concerned about the trend, seeing it as something that could have a potentially negative impact on productivity and culture within organizations. 

Others have warned quiet quitters that their actions could have an extremely negative impact on their own career prospects, and even make them prime candidates for layoffs with a recession looming. 

On the other side of the fence, many people see quiet quitting as a long overdue redressing of the balance by employees who have been taken advantage of for too long, and forced to do a lot of extra work without any real reward.

Some even argue that calling it quiet quitting is a misnomer, as it implies that simply doing the job you’re paid to do and setting healthy boundaries is somehow slacking off. TikToker and self-confessed quiet quitter Clayton Ferris even said, “The most interesting part about it is nothing’s changed. I still work just as hard. I still get just as much accomplished. I just don’t stress and internally rip myself to shreds.”

Whatever side you fall on, the debate highlights the divisions in the current working world. There is a clear groundswell of people who are looking to redefine what work means and the role it plays in our lives, but the status quo is resistant to change.

As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Employers should want employees to be motivated to excel and grow in their jobs, but this should be something that is rewarded, not expected, and shouldn’t have to come at a huge personal cost. 

And while employees wanting healthier boundaries is something that should be welcomed, quiet quitting isn’t necessarily the most constructive way to achieve this.

As people leaders, the onus is on us to find better ways forward, and work with employees to encourage more open dialogue about what they really want from their careers, and how we can better serve that.

How employee recognition can help curb quiet quitting

If you’re worried about quiet quitting becoming a problem in your organization, it might be time to start thinking more seriously about employee recognition. 

At its heart, quiet quitting is about employees feeling unappreciated for the extra effort they are putting in, and a well-designed employee recognition program could go a long way towards addressing this issue. 

Making recognition a cornerstone of your culture will ensure your people always feel that they are seen when they go above and beyond, and ultimately motivate them to continue doing so. 

If you want to learn more, check out The Ultimate Employee Recognition Playbook. In this guide, we detail the 6 steps you need to take to build an impactful recognition program. You’ll learn how to: 

  • Make the case for employee recognition

  • Build your team of champions

  • Find the right solution for your needs

  • Set your goals

  • Launch your program

  • Measure the results

Click here to download your copy today!

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Conor Moloney

Written by Conor Moloney

Conor is a Content Marketing Specialist at Guusto. He loves creating articles and other resources to help HR leaders build better cultures within their companies.

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