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Quiet Quitting: A New Term for an Old Problem in a Changed Workplace

A woman is sitting in front of a computer with her hand on her head.

Quiet quitters are taking the phrase "phoning it in" to a whole new level.

Today, 21 percent of employed Americans are doing the bare minimum, according to an August 2022 survey, and 5 percent say they do less than they're being paid for. The reasons behind this trend—which has become known as "quiet quitting"—vary, but 8 out of 10 people surveyed by say they are simply burned out. The good news, however, is that 9 out of 10 people who consider themselves quiet quitters can be persuaded to work to their full potential.

An Age-Old Problem?

Allyn Bailey, executive director of hiring success for San Francisco-based SmartRecruiters, said quiet quitting isn't a new problem. There have always been individuals who don't perform up to their full capacity or capabilities.

"That's a performance issue—a behavior issue—and it's always kind of existed," she said. "What's really happening, and what HR executives need to assess, is their employee population really redefining what the psychological contract is between companies and employees." The crux of the problem, according to Bailey, is that employees are no longer buying into the myth that to be successful they have to subscribe to the "hustle culture and be always available and always 'on' 100 percent of the time."

Wanda Jackson, senior vice president of human resources with the National Urban League based in New York City, said the problem parallels the Great Resignation, in which people started reflecting on their workplaces, how they wanted to spend their time and what's most important to them. And it has little to do with money or position, she said. "It's about the need for time and the other things going on in lives like being a parent or acting as a caregiver for an elderly person or someone who is sick."

Making the Person(nel) Connection

Jason Averbook, CEO of Leapgen, an HR consulting firm based in Manhattan Beach, Calif., said the quiet quitting trend means employers need to do more than touch base with employees. "Most HR managers and leaders don't have programs in place to check in on their people," he said. "They're used to doing once-a-year engagement surveys when they should be taking the pulse of people on a daily or weekly basis."

Having frequent conversations with employees is the best way to counteract quiet quitting, Jackson said. This includes creating a strategy for your company to provide more personal support or personalized motivation, such as supporting their educational goals. For example, Jackson schedules frequent one-on-one meetings at her own organization so she can better understand her employees' day-to-day assignments as well as what's going on in their personal lives.

"There are people who you have to tease out the kernel of what's important to them," she said. "And that may be the place where you have a breakthrough."

Kim Boulahanis, vice president of human resources for DataLink Software, a health care technology company based in Tampa, Fla., said her organization also does regular check-ins, making sure to ask if there's anything the company could be doing to make the employee experience better.

Damarys Reyes, human resources director at Advance Local, a media, software and data company based in New York City, is coaching her company's managers to perform their own check-ins, especially given that so many of her employees are still working remotely. As part of that, she suggests managers build in something fun and engaging once a month or every six weeks. This can include in-person, 30-minute team-building exercises, she said, to deepen work relationships and camaraderie. "They find that that's helping a lot because then they can see each other and not just be on camera or video," she explained. "Managers are making more of an effort to make that connection with employees to make sure that they know, 'Hey, you're appreciated. We're being flexible, but also let's see each other.' "

Reyes is also working with managers to make sure that the flexibility people need is available to them. This means giving people deadlines and timelines but letting them set their own hours and work when it's most convenient rather than just making it mandatory for everyone to stay until a specific time of the day. Some employees may only work until 3 p.m. but log back on later in the evening to complete their work. "And if they come through obstacles, they're encouraged to bring it up right away so they can resolve them before the deadline," Reyes added.

This type of workplace shift needs to come from the top, Boulahanis noted. At DataLink Software, management acknowledges that no one should be putting in 16-hour days and that the typical 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. workday may be outdated.

SmartRecruiters' Bailey pointed out that trusting employees to function in this environment may take a leap of faith and a relinquishing of control, but it pays off in the end. The more leaders micromanage, the more people are going to do things that can be categorized as quiet quitting. "This whole terminology around quiet quitting is about companies realizing that employees aren't going to play the game the same way," Bailey said. "They're redefining work, and companies can either choose to understand that and reassess how they're going to treat employees or face more pushback."

Every manager and HR executive should remember that there are some people who are persevering at work—afraid to quiet quit—who still need support and flexibility from their employers, National Urban League's Jackson said. This more often than not applies to women and people of color, who may be afraid to follow through on quiet quitting like their colleagues.

"If you're trying to be successful at work as a woman or a person of color, do you even have the option to quiet quit?" Jackson asked. "The thing that people of color sometimes learn is that you have to go above and beyond and do things to stand out to make sure that folks recognize your abilities." Those employees may look happy on the outside but are languishing or stressed on the inside, she added, "and that's a tough place to be."

Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.


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