The term “quiet quitting” is a misnomer, as employees aren’t actually leaving their jobs. Rather, it means that employees are staying in their jobs, but committing to doing only what is specifically required of them, and nothing more. This concept is by no means new–it’s similar to what previous generations have called “phoning it in”–but its recent popularity is a reflection of the fundamental shift in employees’ mindset towards work in the wake of a global pandemic.
Over the past two years, many employees have experienced tremendous stress on the work and home front, leading them to question and reassess the role that work plays in their lives. With 92% of workers reporting burnout during the pandemic, money and titles are no longer enough to justify the time and energy employers demand. Employees’ priorities have shifted to more emphasis on career growth, training and development opportunities, and a greater sense of purpose and meaning. When organizations expect more from their employees but don’t give them what they value in return, workers may decide to draw boundaries and resort to doing the bare minimum.
While some may dismiss “quiet quitting” as the viral trend du jour, the data shows that this is a trend worth paying attention to. A recent Gallup survey found that “quiet quitters” make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade. Notably, employees under the age of 35 reported the most significant decline in engagement, dropping six percentage points from 2019 to 2022.
So what can organizations do to engage talent and prevent quiet quitting?
1. Start with Managers
Research from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) shows that quiet quitting is less about the employee’s willingness to work and more about managers’ leadership abilities. They found that the least effective managers had three to four times as many direct reports who were “quiet quitting” versus the most effective leaders. In addition, a 2022 McKinsey global survey showed that one of the top reasons that workers might leave their jobs in the near future was uncaring and uninspiring leaders.
Given the impact that managers have on their direct reports, addressing issues at this level is key to keeping employees engaged. When managers are supportive of well-being, employees are 25% more likely to be happy at work. However, managers who are responsible for the well-being of their team members may also be struggling or experiencing burnout themselves. The Gallup survey showed that only one in three managers are engaged at work. That’s why support from the top and leadership training is essential to equipping managers to adapt to a changing work environment. Investing in managers can help them lead more effectively and build relationships with their teams in a way that will have positive ripple effects across the whole organization.
2. Prioritize the Development and Well-Being of Employees
Research from McKinsey found that the number one reason workers considered leaving their jobs was lack of opportunities for career development and advancement. This was a bigger issue for workers than inadequate total compensation, which came in at number two. This means that it is critical for companies to provide relevant and effective learning and development opportunities for their employees. At Her New Standard, we find that women feel more connected to their organizations after attending one of our bootcamps. They have a greater sense of their potential for growth and get the message that their contribution is valued.
When companies prioritize employees’ development and well-being, they are also addressing another key driver of quiet quitting–the sense that an employer doesn’t care about them. HBR research shows that employees are willing to go above and beyond only when they trust their leaders and feel that they care about their well-being. In addition, a 2019 Limeade Institute report on employee experiences showed that when employees felt that their organization cares about them, they’re seven times more likely to want to stay at the company for three or more years, and four times less likely to burn out.
An interesting question is whether it is worth investing in employees during the “Great Resignation.” After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median number of years that employees had been with their current employer was 4.1 years, as of January 2022. With employees moving on more frequently from jobs than they have in the past, do these programs still make sense? The truth is that if companies don’t invest in their current employees, the bigger risk is not that employees will leave, but that they will stay and “quiet quit.” The impact of having less engaged and less productive employees will have a negative impact on a company’s bottom line.
3. Communicate Expectations Clearly and Provide Honest Feedback
“Quiet firing” is another term that has recently made its rounds on social media. It describes companies who passively-aggressively cause unwanted employees to quit by denying raises, promotions and other opportunities. This behavior has been exacerbated by the recent labor shortage, which resulted in some managers hiring less-than-ideal candidates. When performance issues arise and managers don’t feel equipped to have tough performance conversations or don’t have the capacity to provide employees with support, their silence may eventually turn into quiet firing. This, together with quiet quitting, creates extremely toxic work environments for all involved.
One way leaders can prevent employees from quiet-quitting, and managers from quiet-firing, is to set clear expectations of managers and promote more frequent communication at all levels. Managers should be clear on what’s expected of them in terms of building relationships with and giving feedback to their team members. For example, is it clear to your managers that coaching their direct reports is not an “extra” thing to do, but rather a core part of their job?
Research by Gallup showed that less than four in 10 young remote or hybrid employees clearly know what is expected of them at work. This is a significant number, and it is a sign that managers are not communicating expectations clearly with these employees. During the pandemic, “job creep” became more pronounced as many employees found their job duties expanding and extra work became the norm. When employees feel burned out and don’t receive support from their manager to draw boundaries, they may decide to do the bare minimum. By taking the time to reassess each person’s core job responsibilities, managers can help employees prioritize their most essential tasks and create more work-life balance.
4. Foster an Environment of Belonging
Employees are increasingly placing a higher value on both meaningful work and workplaces that acknowledge social and cultural issues. Research from Gartner showed that 68% of workers said they’d consider quitting in favor of working for a company with a stronger stance on social issues that matter to them. The same survey showed that employees were twice as likely to report high job satisfaction when their employer has a strong viewpoint on social and cultural issues.
In times of social and political uncertainty, some events may affect employees emotionally and have an impact on their productivity and engagement. Companies can take the pulse on these issues by having more frequent dialogue with employees to understand what issues matter most to them. Organizations should also create spaces where employees feel safe to express themselves, as that helps to build a sense of community and belonging. This may include both formal and informal forums for productive conversations, with clearly established norms of communication so that the conversations remain focused and respectful.
Lastly, it’s important to note that “quiet quitting” is not an option for everyone. Women, particularly women of color, tend to feel like they have less of an option to do so, and therefore may end up taking the brunt of the workload when colleagues choose to quiet-quit. This puts additional pressure on women, who are increasingly feeling more burned out than men, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report. Women and people of color also tend to be at even greater risk of being quiet fired, as they tend to get less support from managers and are often underrepresented in leadership roles. Companies need to be aware of how the quiet quitting and quiet firing trends may adversely impact the women in their organization, and take steps to reduce the chance of these behaviors occurring.
On the surface, it may seem like “lazy” employees are to blame for the quiet quitting trend. However, the research shines a spotlight on organizations and their leadership, and the issues that arise when they are unable to adapt to the changing values of their workforce. Individuals want to give their time and energy to organizations and leaders that can offer them something of value in return. In the past, poor management and work-life balance may have been justified by an attractive compensation package, but that is no longer enough. Employees increasingly value growth and development, managers who genuinely care about them, and workplaces that foster a sense of community and belonging. Companies who provide these key ingredients will be more likely to have an engaged workforce that doesn’t quit, quietly or otherwise.