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What’s really going on with quiet quitting

October 26, 2022
Frustrated business woman sitting behind office desk.

In 2021, 47 million people voluntarily quit their jobs.1 The Great Resignation, which is the name generally used to describe this pandemic-spurred shift, has been the primary focus of economists, businesses and the media across the country for nearly a year. That is, until “quiet quitting” took up the mantle for workplace trends in 2022. Popularized by Gen Z creators on the social media platform TikTok, the phrase has lit up debates about what it really means to “quiet quit”: in a literal sense for individual workers and symbolically for the global labor force.2

What is quiet quitting?

In the September 13, 2022, episode of the Wall Street Journal’s As We Work podcast, Marquette Associate Professor of Management, Kristie Rogers shares that when it comes to topics like respect, engagement, or morale (all coming into play in quiet quitting), it can be difficult to define.3 According to one of the original viral content creators, Zaid Khan, quiet quitting isn’t really about quitting at all, it’s about seeking balance. “You're still performing your duties but you're no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life,” he says.2 Gallup described quiet quitting as “​​[people] not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description.”4 Alison Green, the work advice columnist and consultant known for her website Ask a Manager, has received dozens of quiet quitting descriptions from a variety of workers that include not answering emails on weekends, adhering strictly to hours defined in contracts, and forgoing unsupported and uncompensated “extra” work like serving on social or volunteer committees. As Green states, the term quiet quitting doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening at all. People aren’t quitting, but their actions and attitudes are making a mark on workplaces.5

Why are employees quiet quitting?

Rogers, whose recent research focuses on respect from managers and co-workers, and what that looks like in the post-pandemic world of work, sees quiet quitting as a symptom of an overall larger issue that’s been exacerbated by the workplace transformation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In an MIT Sloan Management Review article, Rogers described quiet quitting as an identity shift for employees, “Part of the answer lies in seeing who your employees are now rather than treating them as the person they once were,” she says.6

As the management consulting company Gallup found, quiet quitting is moreso a type of employee disengagement. Employee engagement, defined by Gallup as the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace,7 can be a crucial indicator of employees’ perspectives on the workplace, its culture and the work they’re responsible for. However, the risks and challenges brought about by disengaged employees wasn’t introduced by, nor does it solely impact, Gen Z workers. Gallup data shows employee engagement maintaining a steady rate around 26-30% of the workforce since 2000. Somewhat more notable is the rise since 2018 in “actively disengaged employees,”8 who Gallup defines as “resentful that their needs aren't being met and are acting out their unhappiness” and who “potentially undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.”7

Poorly managed workplace overhauls to remote environments during the peak of pandemic uncertainty were simply the first step in the latest iteration of the decades-long trend of low employee engagement. But with the working world pushing for a “back to business as usual” mentality, that’s exactly where Rogers’ latest research findings are taking hold.

The challenges of returning to pre-pandemic work environments

It’s safe to say there’s a divide between worker and management expectations for work life two years past the initial global shutdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2021, Slack’s Future Forum, a consortium launched to conduct research with a focus on flexible, inclusive and connected work, found that nearly half of executives who have primarily worked remotely through the pandemic said they wanted to come back to the office every day with just 17% of employees sharing that desire. Further, the report found that 66% of executives report they are designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees. And disappointingly, while the same number of executives (66%) believed they were being “very transparent” regarding their “post-pandemic” policies, less than half of workers agreed.9

The disconnect demonstrated in these stats aren’t surprising to Rogers, who has dug into the dynamic between workers who returned earlier and more quietly to the office versus those who are being lured back with incentives. In the WSJ podcast, Rogers told the host that although managers she’s surveyed have felt they were demonstrating respect by offering flashy incentives to employees for returning to the office, it’s not what the workers want.3

“It was kind of a miss for them on the social stuff, and they said, ‘I'd much rather have a regular check in meeting. I'd much rather have some other kind of visibility that could move my career forward. Those are the things I really want.’ And those are intangible,” Rogers explains, “That's not a $25,000 bonus, that's not a gift of some sort, but it is something that tells them that who you are and what you are doing is something that's valued here.”3

This disconnect can exacerbate issues between employees and managers and also among employees themselves. Tentatively enforced “return to office” mandates from lack of decisive management is opening up further challenges to be resolved that negate the ostensible reasons for returning to the office in the first place. As Rogers explains on the podcast, “...We know from incivility research that incivility spirals, and if there's just those small subtle jabs at others like, "Oh, if you had been around during this time." Or, "Oh, I see you made the trip to the office today. What was that like?" Those slights and those comments, they're likely to be reciprocated. And when they do that, they escalate and they spread to others around them. Now, this completely undermines the whole purpose of bringing people back to collaborate if there's so much tension within the team that they're not communicating willingly, they're just doing what they absolutely need to. And they're definitely not feeling safe enough to share ideas and to do better, more collaborative work than they've been able to do remotely.”3

More dire than quiet quitting: Poor management

Quiet quitting and the levels of disengagement the trend is marked by, are a result of poor management at multiple levels. According to Gallup 70% of variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager.7 Rogers would likely agree. As she explained, “[I] really can't stress enough that if people do not know what is valued by their leadership, by their managers, they are going to look for cues of what that might be or craft stories of their own. And that can be really detrimental. So if we are in situations like that and it becomes a really competitive workplace, that will be incredibly toxic for those people working in that environment.”3

What can managers do to fight the threat of quiet quitting and demonstrate respect to their employees? “Think about how you can engage [workers who feel overlooked] to bring them into the process of figuring this out,” Rogers suggests, “If they are people who are becoming resentful because they haven't been appreciated enough for all that they've given and the dedication that they've displayed, that likely means that they are very committed to the company and they want others to acknowledge that.”3

It’s also key to understand that employee engagement is much more than an “HR issue” and needs to be owned by leaders from the top down. Especially if it’s your mid-level managers who are becoming disengaged. Dissatisfied or disengaged employees can represent a huge opportunity for organizational improvement. As Rogers explains, “[Disengaged workers] want to make things better and have ideas for doing that. So how do you get them involved in the [solution], how do we move forward?” As she suggests in the Sloan Management piece, Rogers says, “Approaching conversations with your employees in humanizing ways that show care for the whole person rather than for a “hustler” or a “quiet quitter” signals respect in a more holistic way. When people feel valued holistically, they are more likely to naturally engage or reengage in their work.”6

Attentive, empathetic managers can make all the difference for businesses struggling to bring employees back into the fold whether they’re returning to the office from remote work, are navigating a newly hybrid team, or have slid into a level of disengagement from several years of pandemic upheaval. In a Harvard Business Review study, managers who were rated the highest at balancing business results with concern for employee needs had 62% of their direct reports willing to give extra effort and only 3% self-reporting as quietly quitting versus the lowest rated managers who had 14% of direct reports quietly quitting and only 20% willing to go the extra mile. In the same study, trust, (comprising positive employee relationships of mutual respect, consistency, and expertise) was the differentiating factor between good managers and bad ones.10

Earn a management degree from experts who know quiet quitting isn’t just a viral trend

Become a trusted manager who can make a difference in the lives of their employees as well as on the bottom line. At Marquette University, we strive to be on the cutting edge of business philosophies that put a premium on human well-being and principled people management. As Professor Rogers illustrates in her research, respect is central to organizational achievement and we believe it’s a key factor in academic excellence as well. Earn your online Master in Management degree on your own schedule. Bring your learnings to life by applying new skills and techniques to your daily work. Learn from industry experts like Rogers, John Cotton, Jennica Webster and countless others who have an in-depth understanding of how people are critical to any business’s success. Schedule a call with an Admissions Advisor to learn more or start your application today.