Just What Is “Quiet Quitting,” and What Can I Do About It?

I’m sure you are familiar with this scenario. You are the boss of a small department. It runs well – maybe there is a little excess capacity – life is fine. Then, someone quits, and you choose not to replace that person, but instead to have the rest of the team pick up the slack. It happens every day. But when the Great Resignation hit, it happened a lot. The job market was crazy, wages were increasing, and even if you wanted to replace the lost workers, you couldn’t. So existing workers took on more and more work and were asked to support the team. If you’ve been there, you know this gets old really fast. Trying to do two people’s jobs, in one shift, for one salary, leads to burnout, disengagement, and active quitting, aka, “I’m outta here!”

Well, researchers are noticing a new trend. Rather than quit and leave the organization, people are “quiet quitting,” meaning that they are quietly refusing to do the extra work. They will do the work that’s in their job description, during the hours they are scheduled, but they are refusing to take on more work – at least without some additional consideration. Quiet quitting makes a stand for work/life balance. Quiet quitting is not about workers being defiant; rather, it’s about their willingness to keep the commitments they originally made and not be forced into situations without their consent.

Is quiet quitting a problem? Probably. If you’re the boss, likely you’re expecting employees to complete work that they won’t. On a deeper level, this phenomenon also suggests that the lines of communication between you and your staff are breaking down, and that they are not sharing their concerns about having too much work. They are simply, and quietly, choosing not to do it. It won’t do any good to punish employees for quiet quitting, nor to simply crack the whip more loudly and more often.

Okay, so what do you do about quiet quitting? I suggest three approaches: engagement, analysis, and consideration. Let’s start with engagement. As a manager, I can appreciate the concept of quiet quitting.  I don’t want to burn out my employees, and I understand that from their perspective perhaps I’m asking too much. But I really want them to tell me that so we can work out a solution, rather than simply, and quietly, refusing to do the work. It’s the “quiet” part that bothers me. The solution is to engage them–  get them to talk about what they are working on, the volumes of the work, and how they are feeling about their work/life balance. Help them to understand the organization’s challenges. Ensure an ongoing and active dialogue, and if nothing else, get the “quiet” of the calculation.

Next is analysis. Is it possible that your workers are right and what you are asking is not realistic? Can two or three people really do the work of four or five? Step back and look at their work volumes. If you haven’t made big changes in methods or systems, can you look historically to see how many people worked in your department and the volume of work for each? Look closely at what else is happening in the department. Is there work that you can stop doing in order to create capacity for what you must do? Does the increase in work justify new processes or systems? How can you create efficiencies so that the work gets done without overburdening employees? The answers to these questions are not easy, but they are crucial to long term employee satisfaction and retention. Maybe you’ll find that you really do need to add those jobs back.

Finally, look at the consideration. Employment, after all, is about an exchange of time, talent, and effort for consideration (money, benefits, environment, etc.). You may acknowledge that you are asking workers to do more work than they used to do, so what are you giving them in exchange? More money is nice, but it doesn’t have to be the only answer. Can you better recognize and celebrate those who are agreeing to the additional work? Can you reward them with gifts, awards, additional time off, additional training, new office furniture, or a pizza party? Recognition and rewards are usually less about the “gift” than the fact that you noticed their contributions, you appreciated what they were doing, and you made a big deal about it. 

Ultimately, quiet quitting suggests that the employer has increased their expectations, without increasing the consideration. Open a dialogue with your employees and see how they are feeling. Step back and rationally examine the operations, methods, and capacities. Reestablish realistic expectations and rewards. Quiet quitting may be a newer phenomenon, but it can’t go unaddressed, and it won’t go away on its own. You, along with your workers, can bridge the gap and reestablish the right balance.

Roger Dusing, PhD, is a Senior Consultant and the Higher Education Practice Leader at OMNI. He previously served as Chief Human Resource Officer at Park University for eleven years. With over 40 years of HR experience, including 30 years in C-suite level roles, he looks forward to reflecting his passion for higher education in his work to bring affordable, high-quality HR services to small- to medium-sized colleges and universities. 

Roger holds a PhD in Business Management, with a concentration in Human Resources from Northcentral University, a Master of Science in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a BS in Industrial Engineering from Bradley University. He also authored the book “I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable About the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another.”