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Quiet quitting: What is it and why should HR leaders care?

Tom Cornell, Senior Psychology Consultant - HireVue

‘Quiet Quitting’, an HR trend which took off in 2022 after American TikTokker @zaidlepplin posted a video on it, is still top of HR leaders’ lists for attention. This is where workers only take the time to do the job they are being paid to do, and set boundaries, such as not going beyond the tasks outlined in their job description or engaging with work outside of office hours. The worry that employees might be switching off is a massive one, with 85% of employees worldwide still not engaged or are actively disengaged at work. This paired with existing talent shortages means companies are already struggling for resources and can’t afford to have disengaged employees.

But is this a concern that actually warrants attention? Or a trend which actually isn’t happening, fueled by discussions online rather than actual insights? Either way, HR leaders need to educate themselves about Quiet Quitting and protect their business from its potential effects.

Why is this happening?
It’s highly unlikely that Quiet Quitting is actually a new trend, but more one that has been given a refreshed name and as such is garnering online interest. In truth, it’s another term covering disengagement, presenteeism and counterproductive workplace behaviours. The difference is that many of these have been researched to try and understand factors that can negatively impact productivity or performance, but currently formal research on Quiet Quitting has not been conducted in the same way.

However, there are suggestions that it is being utilised as a technique to counter burnout in the workplace. So essentially, it occurs when an employee takes their foot off the gas to restore some work-life balance. With the ongoing stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the recent power shift between employees and employers caused by talent shortages, it seems plausible that employees are exploring Quiet Quitting as a means to free up time to focus more on their personal lives. Additionally, with employers having to work harder to attract and retain staff, these employees may feel they are more likely to get away with reduced output than they would have done a year ago.

What we are actually seeing
At this moment, it’s unclear where this is happening, or how widespread it is as it largely seems to be a discussion trend led by social media, rather than organisational researchers. Although with almost one in five employees saying they are likely to switch to a new employer in the next 12 months and employees passively looking for new employment, it isn’t unreasonable to assume Quiet Quitting is similarly on the rise. The core question is really how sustained it is and if employees who reduce their workload as a temporary means to address burnout, then become reinvigorated, resulting in a minimal loss in long-term productivity. However, if employees sustain this behaviour either until they truly leave the company or their low performance is detected, then this becomes a far greater issue for businesses.

The need for businesses to course correct
In order to combat this trend, it’s important that businesses take measures to give employees a voice, so they can understand where discontent may be growing or where people are at risk of Quiet Quitting. Regular meetings with managers or using more innovative approaches like chatbots to gather data in real time are good ways to understand what might be leading to a lack of engagement amongst the workforce.

It’s important for HR teams to remember that Quiet Quitting doesn’t refer to people who are truly underperforming or not doing their work but focuses on those who are not engaged or motivated by their job to do more than is required. Having clear career progression opportunities, as well as a rewards and recognition programmes, can help signal at an organisational level that additional efforts do not go unnoticed and can lead to desirable outcomes. At an individual level, managers should seek to understand what an individual’s career motivations are and make efforts to align the employee’s role to this where possible. 

Alongside this, managers must remember that motivation and engagement are not constant and will naturally fluctuate due to many contributing factors. Managers and organisations should be careful not to punish troughs in engagement without first understanding the individual’s current circumstances.

Quiet Quitting might seem like a worrying trend for HR teams, but this does not need to be the case. While we wait for more research and statistics in order to understand how widespread the issue is, HR teams can take steps to fix any productivity issues as they arise by keeping the lines of communication open. Businesses that do this will find that they have a more engaged and happier workforce and won’t need to worry about the potential for Quiet Quitting to affect their output.

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