Quiet Quitting: A Look at the Upside


Tim ToterhiIFP HR Expert

Thursday, November 3, 2022

A lot has been said about quiet quitting and those who commit the act. Pundits point to failing systems, a collective downward spiral in employee engagement, and of course those evil millennials, zillennials and the upcoming “Double A” generation (yup, like the batteries) who want everything for nothing… yesterday.

Article 6 Minutes
Quiet Quitting: A Look at the Upside

It’s a compelling tale, but it’s fiction. And even if it was, “based on a true story,” it’s nothing new, nothing harmful and frankly exactly what companies, managers and HR departments deserve. So, what is Quiet Quitting really?

Simply put, it’s when employees do exactly what they were hired to do as promised – no more, no less. The fact that we see this as a sign of weakness, laziness or disloyalty is simply ludicrous. If a plumber fixes your sink, do you ding him for not voluntarily, on his dime, checking your toilet and shower? And what of your dentist? Shouldn’t she just fill that cavity for free? After all, you were already there for the cleaning.

Somewhere along the way, companies got greedy. They hire you for a role and immediately expect you to do more than they pay you for. And it starts before you even accept the position. Check your job description. No doubt, you’ll see a convenient phrase listed in the responsibilities section; the old “other duties as assigned”.

Project Management professionals have a term for this ­– Gold plating: the practice of providing extra, free features that were not part of the contracted scope. If you haven’t guessed, it’s frowned upon in the profession because it increases cost, jeopardizes timelines, enhances risks, and creates the expectation of future freebies.

How did we get here?

1. Societal norms: Many cultures place a premium on hard work and hustle. In America for example, we’re told from childhood to “go the extra mile”, “bend over backwards” and “come out swinging” to win the day.

2. Personal ambition: Many people simply want to be the best. They want to win, however they define it, and they’re willing to, as Muhammad Ali said, “Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” As an old school, Gen-Xer, I’m a big fan of both ideals. External pressure. Internal drive. Without them, I’d still be stuck in the “where I was”. It’s the next one that begs reexamination.

3. HR Processes: Pick a topic: Performance, Compensation, Promotions, Talent Reviews, Succession Planning. They’re primarily designed for the bookends of your employee population – the top and bottom 10-15% – The A and C players as old GE Jack would call them.

But think about it. What do most companies actually do with their large and “messy” middle? Give them a cost-of-living increase and access to on-line training from the 1970s?  Not exactly a prize worth chasing. No. Companies are smarter than that. They also dangle something far more compelling…an implied promise. Maybe it sounds familiar:

“Listen, employee TK-421, if you take on this special project and work, oh I don’t know, say an extra 10 to 20 hours per week…then maybe, someday, perhaps, no-promises here, but you might possibly land yourself that Senior [insert title] position you’ve been eyeballing. Whaddaya say?”

Why employees are rethinking that promise

The implied promise construct worked wonders for a long time. Actual A players, Hunger Gamed their way to the top spots while an endless sea of optimistic B players put in extra hours, hoping to make the cut.

It wasn’t long before the corporate world began to resemble a twisted version of American Idol, where starry-eyed performers practiced endlessly without instruction and stood in line for days, only to sing-off key and be instantly dismissed.

But employees have gotten wiser for two reasons:

  1. Rethinking norms: We will always have a hard-working, hustle culture, but COVID-19 was a collective wake-up call that sparked the realization that time and health are our most valuable resources. We’ll still run and bend and fight for the win, but the prize has to be real and well-worth the extra effort.
  2. Refocusing ambitions: Each day each employee performs an unconscious assessment of their workplace. Think of it as the “aggravation / compensation equation”. Those with a more optimistic nature can say “motivation / compensation”. In either case it means that every employee is constantly weighing what your company offers against the promise of alternate opportunities be it a new job or going all in on that Saturday morning side hustle.

So, what are companies to do?

First, check your assumptions. Consider the possibility that your employees aren’t Quiet Quitting you. Rather, you are Loudly failing them.

Next, consider adopting these practical strategies.

  1. Audit your implied contract: Objectively review what you are asking for and what you are providing in return. Does the agreement seem fair and balanced? If not, don’t expect a majority of workers to sign-up.
  2. Understand your audience: Use the right tool to gather feedback. Employees surveys offer only general insights. Exit surveys yield questionable results. And neither can help with in-flight situations. Careers are personal. If you want to uncover and remedy the individual reasons behind quiet quitting, you have to talk to the individual.
  3. Train managers: Teach (and pay) your managers to become the stewards of their people’s careers. When managers actively develop their direct reports, they provide real value to the individual and can transform a negative War for Talent into a productive development Space Race, creating wins for all stakeholders.
  4. Embrace transparency: Sometimes we forget that employees are grown-ups. Most will understand the realistic what of things if you give them a logical why. So, consider sharing the output of your talent reviews, provide clear rationales for your promotion and pay practices and most importantly offer specific, actionable feedback, coaching and development options so they CAN go-beyond the job description…if they so choose.

The harsh reality

The company as parent construct is gone. The gig economy, the side hustle culture and the associated technological advances that make it possible to earn real income from your smartphone have upended that antiquated arrangement.

Quiet quitting isn’t a sign of laziness. It’s a hallmark of sophistication. Employees have upped their game and companies need to thoughtfully respond. The tactics above are a good start.

Not everyone will chase the next brass ring, but not everyone needs to. Many employees will simply do their jobs and keep their promises. But how exactly is that bad?

If you’re unsure of where to start, try the scary bit – transparency. Honesty has a way of aligning purpose and focusing energy. And sure, a dash of truthiness may prompt some quiet quitters to actually quit, but if they leave, they'll do so for the right reasons and exit as fans.

Besides, silence is disastrous. As I tell my coaching clients:

When the only one talking about your career is a recruiter, it’s time to listen. 

Embrace the upside

Let’s face it. We each only have so much time on the planet. Spending it thoughtfully, purposefully, and in pursuit of what we most want is the always best right answer. So, read the fine print on those implied contracts. Then keep your promises and go beyond the job description when and if it makes sense to do so.

If the pandemic prompted employees to rethink their relationship with work, then this new round of Quiet Quitting will ultimately encourage employers to rethink their relationship with workers. Artfully done, both parties will emerge from this effort wiser, more focused, and better aligned than ever before. To me it’s all upside.

Tim Toterhi

Tim Toterhi is not your usual HR guy. He’s passionate about slashing bureaucracy and rethinking old thinking. He is a TEDx speaker, ICF certified coach, PMP, and the author of several books including The Introvert's Guide to Job Hunting and the HR Guide to Getting and Crushing Your Dream Job. Tim has over 20 years of management experience in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He’s been quoted in publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, and the HuffPost as well as profiled in the book, Magnificent Leadership.


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