Quiet Quitting, Silent Firing and a Whole Lot of Workplace Dissatisfaction
Anyone attuned to trends in the workplace lately have noticed a proliferation of novel, often-alliterative or assonate terms to describe shifts in how employees and employers relate to each other and the work places around them. These phenomena, ranging from “quiet quitting” to “the great resignation” to “quiet firing” or “managing out” may not be entirely new concepts, but do seem to be gaining outsize traction in the professional zeitgeist.
Regardless of the term du jour used to describe the change, there does seem to be a common theme of massive adjustment to the traditional social contract between organizations and the people hired to execute on the latter’s tasks. While some of the trends can be traced to the Covid-19 era, many pre-date the pandemic but are only now rising to the top of our collective work consciousness and finding voice in news articles, LinkedIn posts and the business press.
Here we analyze some of these trends, with a special focus on the developments around the concept of quiet quitting and – spoiler alert – examine these seismic changes through a perspective that these changes are related to challenges around humanizing businesses and making them less about metrics and performance and more about recognizing that real people and their complicated needs are the fundamental basis for a successful organization.
What Social Contract Has Changed?
Businesses everywhere, especially those whose productivity is easily measured by quantifiable metrics, now have eye-popping access to a constellation of products and services that gauge, categorize, reward and punish all classes of output in the workplace. These measurement tools have allowed companies to optimize their processes and operations down to the microsecond, millimeter, customer-service satisfaction score or whatever unit of incremental improvement may be applicable. These instruments have resulted in incredible gains for organizations – millions of new followers, thousands of downloads, hundreds of percentage-point increases in profit, etc.
But there’s a catch – those processes and operations that drive all that improvement are made of – wait for it – real people. And many of those real people are, to put it bluntly, fed up. Tired of measurement, yearning for more identifiable value to their day, focused on wellness and lifestyle balance… and not planning on taking any more BS from a boss demanding ever-escalating performance on measurable metrics.
It’s not like organizations weren’t aware of these issues previously, and there are whole fields of study around workplace environment design, the psychology of executive coaching, rewards systems for employees, etc. but something does seem to have shifted in our relationship to work; employers are not paying enough attention to how employees feel, to how/where/when they perform best or to matching the individual circumstances of their individual lives. And these shifts have resulted in employee-led initiatives like quiet quitting.
What is Quiet Quitting?
Recently the so-called “quiet quitting” movement has been grabbing headlines around the globe. We’re being told that workers are slowing down their production and doing the bare minimum, declining to go above and beyond their stated contractual duties and refusing to overextend themselves beyond their explicit objectives.
But what’s the truth behind quiet quitting? What are workers asking for when they express support for this idea? And how can companies proactively prevent quiet quitting from grinding their workforce to a frustrating halt?
So what actually is quiet quitting? The term has been used to describe everything from workers deliberately sabotaging their workflow to deliver the minimum effort, to simply emotionally disconnecting from their work in an attempt to reduce their stress. But if we look at the term’s history, we’ll find that it was originally coined to describe something much more simple.
In the TikTok video that popularized the term quiet quitting, creator Zaid K described the movement by saying, “You’re not outright quitting your job, you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that says that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”
In most media discussions of the quiet quitting movement, the desire for work/life balance Zaid describes is being framed as a reluctance to find meaning in your professional life. We’re told that no one wants to work anymore – so much so that they prefer to run down the clock with meaningless action instead of contributing to the shared project of their employment. From the employer perspective this seems almost nonsensical. Why would anyone make their work life deliberately more meaningless, grinding away the hours dragging out tasks rather than attempting to climb the corporate ladder?
But is that actually what quiet quitting means? The truth is a little more complex, reflecting larger global trends in workplace satisfaction.
Quiet Quitting: An Employee Perspective
American work culture has historically prioritized individual achievement over collective satisfaction. This is, after all, the classic American dream – that we will be able to work hard enough to stand out from the pack, achieving markers of security like a good education for our upwardly mobile children and a house with a white picket fence.
But for many Americans, the dream has begun to fade. Our country is unable to provide many of its residents with basic amenities other nations take for granted, like paid vacation, universal healthcare and paid parental leave. And that myth of exceptionalism means that many Americans feel they’ve been left out in the cold.
Last year, 50% of Americans were not able to pay their bills on time, with many households reporting that they’d be unable to cover an unexpected $400 emergency without the help of credit cards. As one adroit observer points out, “It’s a lot harder to buy into hustle culture when your home country offers you essentially zero workplace protections and your employer doesn’t pay you enough to afford basic living costs.”
Working from home during the pandemic gave many American workers a new perspective on the value of “acting their wage,” only performing the duties that they feel they’re being appropriately compensated for. And as the internet facilitates communication between workers around the globe, it’s easier than ever for individuals to compare their experiences with counterparts in other countries who enjoy a more balanced national work culture.
In the absence of larger social changes, many workers are quiet quitting to showcase their growing resentment with a system that promises more than it delivers.
Quiet Firing or Managing Out
Not all of these workplace phenomena are employee-led, though ultimately they are all interrelated. Workplace observers are also noting an increasing trend in quiet firing, managing out or other euphemisms for encouraging a worker to “separate from service” and/or downsizing a workforce.
Quiet firing is an equally complex process though often comes with a more crystallized intended outcome: optimizing the bottom line of the organization. The means to the end is different though – instead of simply firing employees outright, employers are creating workplace environments, systems or processes that make the employer-employee social contract so untenable that eventually the employee feels forced to make the decision to leave voluntarily.
This result could be effected by assigning the employee an outsized quantity of work, pushing the employee into menial or even demeaning tasks relative to their skill or ability level, insisting on working hours that directly conflict with the employee’s personal needs or in some cases changing workplace conditions like opening a new physical office in a distant or difficult-to-reach location.
Occasionally, the managing-out situation is not related to mitigating the expense of an employee, but rather to the fact that there is a perceived poor fit with the organization and through various means – either subtle or explicit – the organization encourages the employee to leave, perhaps giving them a window of time in which to find a new position or face eventually being forced out.
Regardless of the organization’s intention, quiet firing or managing out are tactics likely to be immediately flagged by employees, exacerbating a vicious cycle that perpetuates even more quiet quitting.
How Workplace Culture Can Adapt to These Shifts
With all these complex social inputs competing to make quiet quitting or managing out feel like rational choices, how can employers keep their workforce motivated and plugged in, and avoid them defecting to another organization that seems to offer a better work-life balance, more meaningful work and a stronger sense of purpose?
While we can’t change the larger social context that inspires these workforce movements, it’s more than possible to create a workplace culture that allows employees to access the meaning inherent in a job well done and eliminate problems before they start.
This culture shift requires the buy-in and involvement of the whole executive suite, and can’t be relegated to just an HR function, or an “employee champion.” The top levels of the organization from the CEO down must engage or they may find they don’t have any employees left to execute on seemingly more pressing priorities..
Humans are motivated by community, and the community of work and achievement can be central to the development of an individual’s feelings of well being. How? It all comes down to a sense of Shared Purpose that transforms a workspace into a site of creativity, connection and the development of shared meaning.
It’s worth developing all these strategies more intensely, but here are some brief glimpses of how each of the pillars of a successful culture framework work together to build a strong organizational culture:
- Rewards & Recognition
Make sure your employees know their contributions are appreciated by introducing a system of rewards and recognition that incentivizes going above and beyond.
When your brand has a meaningful symbolic presence, employees are more inspired to go to work every day. Be sure to demarcate relevant symbols in the organization, be they a weekly meet-up, a physical totem that represents achievement in the company or some other gesture that employees can focus on as a representation of their Shared Purpose.
Work feels more meaningful when it’s tied to shared achievement. The structure of your organization and the tools you provide should make employees feel set up for success, and part of a greater whole.
Good leadership makes for great employees. Your leadership team will make or break your organization’s ability to achieve, but more importantly, to make employees feel like they belong to a community driven by a greater mission.
Communicate clearly with employees to set expectations and ensure that individuals have what they need to succeed and that there are also open feedback channels for employees to feel empowered to share their ideas, feelings, etc. with leadership and the rest of the team.
The right physical environment can transform an office into a community where shared work and collaboration are valued. Organizations should be intentional about how they structure their environment, especially if there are work-from-home or hybrid models at play.
These Workplace Changes Have a Roadmap Forward
The world is witnessing tectonic shifts in our relationship to work. Employees are voicing concerns either subtly or explicitly through actions like quiet quitting or in more extreme cases signing on to the great reshuffle and leaving organizations entirely in search of a position or company that better matches their expectations of work. In parallel, employers are encouraging employees to leave the organization via tactics one step removed from the traditional firing strategy.
While these changes can be bewildering for both employers and employees alike, there are options that organizations have to develop a more harmonious workplace that keeps employees performing better while improving their loyalty, ideally obviating the need for actions like managing out.
Focusing on the shared purpose of an organization and the culture framework of rewards and recognition, symbolism, structure, leadership, communication and environment can result in outsize improvement to the employment contract and manifest both better performance and competitive advantage for an organization.
Learn more about helping your leadership reach new heights by discovering how BrandCulture’s Shared Purpose and Culture Frameworks can establish leadership priorities to help employees and their organizations reach their highest potential.