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Megan Wallin-Kerth


Who Defines Quiet Quitting?

Committed employees may be hiding in plain sight

Published: Monday, March 20, 2023 - 12:03

‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” Inigo Montoya says to his ringleader, Vizzini, who continually shrieks that an action or idea is “inconceivable!” Anyone who has watched the movie The Princess Bride will immediately recognize the quote.

Likewise, I would say people throw around modern buzzwords without any distinction between the intended meaning and the actual use.

Such is the case with the term “quiet quitting.” It’s catchy, and it’s thrown at readers and employees as if it has some great authority: the ability to define an entire segment of the population as those who are doing just enough to get by in their job while really keeping an eye open for better opportunities. Corporate-siding articles liken these “quiet quitters” to someone who keeps up appearances in a relationship just enough to quench claims of cheating while browsing online profiles for someone better. They’re the traitors who are dating one job while courting others on the side. But is that portrayal accurate?

Definitions must be specific to be relevant

Recent statistics indicate that a whopping 67 percent of employees in the United States may be “quiet quitters,” and 85 percent of employees globally. Of course, this is just an estimation, and it’s problematic for two reasons: 1) Virtually no one raises their hand and says, “Yes, I’m just doing the bare minimum until I find something else or get fired” and 2) quiet quitting hasn’t been adequately defined.

When you break down the elements of a “quiet quitter,” phrases like “does the minimum amount of work but nothing above and beyond” or “does only what is required of him or her for the position” come to the fore. So, essentially the phrase describes something far less sinister or frightening than we’ve been led to believe: precisely, doing your job but nothing more. In other words, some people don’t have the time or energy to invest extra energy in their jobs, and that includes the psychological engagement or sense of identity that often comes with a higher level of engagement at work.

While quiet quitting could apply to some people who indeed don’t care about their work, team, or company, there are many others who signed up for the job in good faith, expecting that the hours and position wouldn’t morph into something else entirely after they began clocking into work. In other words, they trusted that their employer wouldn’t pull a bait-and-switch—a phrase that could just as easily be thrown back at corporate overlords who complain about workers not being available after hours or providing coverage when their co-workers call in sick.

Even if there isn’t a gradual pooling of additional responsibilities, some employees are happy to simply show up, work, and go home. The modern-day ability to check work emails at all hours shouldn’t necessarily translate to an expectation that someone will come in with all their emails read on Monday morning if they truly love their job—or should it?

The dilemma of modern-day economics

It’s impossible to look at the level of engagement in the workplace without factoring in the current economic landscape. Employees today exist in a world where pay raises are almost nonexistent or even cut, and the cost of living has risen well above even what inflation would dictate in many major cities. Meanwhile, despite the rising costs of housing, groceries, utilities, medical care, childcare, etc., adjusted salaries from 1960 to 2015 increased only 5.9 percent, according to NACE survey research. This study found that while college graduates with mathematics and engineering degrees did see some increase—and a paycheck that was consistently above average—most did not. In fact, some people in traditionally high-earning fields, such as marketing, saw a decrease. Employees who have doubts as to their compensation can check out an online inflation calculator to determine where their current salary falls.

So although many under the age of 35 can’t afford to buy a house, they might be called quiet quitters if they choose to disengage from being a cog in the machine at their jobs. While progress seems to have stalled in terms of pay equity and quality of life for the average American worker trying to support a family, it hasn’t stopped in matters of technology and accessibility outside of the office. Now, smartwatches tell you when an email comes into your inbox, and online job applications take a mere 20 minutes, allowing another candidate to readily apply. These “conveniences” can feel like a lingering threat for anyone who might choose to ignore such interruptions while sitting down to dinner with their family.

Furthermore, some managers and CEOs of large companies have recently made headlines for taking pay cuts that have little to no impact on their quality of life, all while they enforce cuts, lament the necessity of layoffs to the media, and refuse to pay raises to their employees who make (no exaggeration) anywhere from 50 to 500 percent less than their bosses. That doesn’t include stocks, bonuses, passive income from assets, and other luxuries of being at the top. Capitalism at its most extreme has been a hotly debated method of accumulating and maintaining wealth, but in the year 2023, the middle class has all but slipped beneath the threshold of what was once attainable.

Most people who are “middle class” are one layoff, illness, or unfortunate decision away from slipping all the way down to low-income—or even severe poverty—and yet the big corporations have been lobbing accusations like “quiet quitting” and “quiet quitters” at them with absolutely no meaningful definition.

Distinguishing between quiet quitters and low performers

So, how does one quantify the difference between a passionate, ambitious employee and one who cares deeply about their job but simply has a full set of responsibilities outside of work? Two people with near-identical work ethics, experience, and abilities could easily be separated into different categories, and one even labeled a “quiet quitter,” all because of their life circumstances.

The pandemic laid out this unfair obstacle course—wherein one group has a race with two hurdles while the other has snake pits and barbed-wire fences—more blatantly than any other factor in recent years. Those with family wealth, or family members they can live with until they can afford to pay bills while also saving up for a house, can accept a 3- to 5-percent raise for a job well done while being able to survive inflation rates between 5 to 9 percent. Others aren’t so fortunate. And parents of school-aged children faced another challenge on top of remote work, which affected how much they could (or should) do when juggling work with childcare.

While large companies shame their employees into doing more without increasing pay or rewarding top performers, we’re seeing one of the largest drops in the past 15 years of two key elements to future success in the next generation: attendance and graduation rates.

So, if many people are committed to their work but not exactly looking to take enthusiastic initiative, to whom should the term quiet quitter apply? It might be tempting to think of some gas station employee who regularly leaves unpleasant tasks to the people working the next shift (which might technically meet the definition quite well), but the most apt use of this term would probably be the CEO who is close to retirement, shows up on prerecorded companywide announcements, and makes 200–500 percent what his or her underlings see in a year—without encouraging innovation, mentoring, or long-term planning within the organization.

Signs of a committed employee

While we’re busy defining quiet quitters, let’s put some metrics in place to separate the committed workers in survival mode from those who are simply ambivalent.

1. Committed workers communicate well and promptly before calling out sick, making changes, showing up late, or requesting a deadline extension. Someone who is committed to the work of an entire team doesn’t want to be the reason everyone else falls behind. In fact, a committed worker would likely insist on finishing a task outside of work hours if they were unable to complete it on the clock rather than have their responsibilities fall to other team members. Keep an eye out for folks who regularly insist, “I couldn’t finish it today, but I can get to it later tonight or this weekend.” That’s either a time management issue or an external stressor rearing its head.

2. They turn in quality work and show that they care about fixing mistakes when one is brought to their attention. Or, conversely, if someone was turning in quality work but their work is now error-ridden, they may be experiencing stressors that are affecting their work abilities. Scheduling a one-on-one meeting may be in order.

3. They are reliable. Someone who cares about their job will make an effort to be on time for meetings, meet deadlines, and communicate regularly with co-workers.

As for advice on solving the problem of quiet quitting, a Gallup article makes the following suggestions.

Monitor manager engagement

If managers aren’t engaged (and only one-third are, according to Gallup polling), then find out why and address it. Accountability goes both ways, and although some managers might fit negative stereotypes, the majority likely worked their way up to a place of authority—and have a passion for their work. Finding and keeping that passion is vital for the overall health of their team members.

Managers must talk with employees, motivate them, and figure out how they can be most effective

Gallup findings recommend “one meaningful conversation per week” for between 15–30 minutes. Why? Personal interaction reminds people that the work that they specifically complete is an important part of the overall vision of a company, or a team within a company. Managers should look for any long meetings with the entire team that do nothing to promote engagement, problem-solving or accountability, and consider reducing those. Instead, take the time to check in one-on-one when possible, and remember that some big team meetings can—and should—be emails. 

Managers need methods for keeping employees accountable for both individual performance and team contribution 

This is the real meaning behind phrases like “work culture.” It isn’t casual Fridays or New Year’s work parties, but the very real relationships between different branches of co-workers and the level of personal responsibility those people accept as individuals and as a team. There must be a way to draw a correlation between each team member’s efforts and the overall purpose. People who know their manager well enough to bring up concerns, problems, or suggestions are likely to become more engaged, and to stay that way.


About The Author

Megan Wallin-Kerth’s picture

Megan Wallin-Kerth

Megan Wallin-Kerth is a Quality Digest editor and writer.


Quiet Quitting

Excellent discussion of all the considerations in that widely misused term.  CEO vs worker disparity, inability to stay ahead of inflation by those in the quickly disaappearing middle class, the fact most of our kids can't afford a home even with both husband and wife working, et al, point to a severe problem, of which the term "quiet quitter" on the surface really doesn't do justice. Thanks for looking under the surface.