The Conundrum of “Quiet Quitting”

By James Morrissey

September 28, 2022

One of the latest intergenerational conversations happening in the workplace today is about “Quiet Quitting.” There isn’t one standard definition and there isn’t one common understanding of what the term means.  This makes it easy to create memes, TikToks, and Op/Ed articles either in support or derision, but it doesn’t make it useful to know what is actually being deal with. 

According to Gallop, 2021 showed the first year in a decade where employee engagement dropped. Even 2020 showed reasonable engagement.  The first half of 2021 maintained engagement, but the second half demonstrated a precipitous decline resulting in a moderated number for the year as a whole.  In other words, employee engagement sunk fast and it sunk hard, a trend that continues into 2022.  During the second quarter of 2022, the proportion of engaged workers remaining at 32% but the proportion of actively disengaged increasing to 18% from 16%.

This active disengagement has consequences.  The National Labor Relations Board reports that between October 2021 and March of this year, union representation petitions increased 57% from the same period and unfair labor practice charges increased 14% throughout the same six month period. During this same period, where employee engagement plummeted, employees expressed this dissatisfaction via union petitions. 

Gallop says though that companies practicing employee engagement fundamentals have continued to increase their employee engagement numbers.  Despite pandemic disruptions over the last two years, companies that demonstrate management involvement, clear communication, and accountability, have done well. In fact, they say that the drivers of this disengagement is the lack of expectations and feeling cared about. 

Some organizations have taken steps to bring employees back to the office en masse, presumably to address the issues expectation clarity, but these wholesale across-the-board moves have some risk. Despite the looming threat of economic slowdown, the economy in general, and the labor market in specific, are still strong and workers still have the demonstrated ability to leave. 

Employers would do well to work on manager engagement – to ensure these organizational leaders feel empowered and valued, and that they know what is expected of them.  Create opportunities and processes for managers to build connections with their teams – 1:1 meetings with each member reduces burnout and increases engagement. People perform better when they understand how their job contributes to the organization and when they feel valued.  

It doesn’t really matter how “Quiet Quitting “is defined. What matters is that disengaged employees are the most likely to behave in the ways the phrase suggests.