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Dealing With “Quiet Quitting” in the Workplace

Looking at Employer and Employee Responsibilities

I must confess that when I read a poll taken by Gallup on “quiet quitting,” I did not know exactly what it meant at first. I thought it referred to the way employees leave their job—quietly and without fuss. Boy, was I way off base. I also wondered if it is related to “The Great Resignation.” This is a phenomenon where U.S. workers resigned from their jobs starting in the spring of 2021, amid strong labor demand and low unemployment even as vaccinations eased the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the Great Resignation, quiet quitters do not leave their job.

Who Are Quiet Quitters?

So, what is quiet quitting and how did it come about? Most people say there have been quiet quitters for years without giving the behavior a name. Apparently, TikTok has sparked interest in this activity. In July 2022, a TikTok user with numerous followers posted that he recently learned about quiet quitting and said: “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work must be our life.” As you might expect, Millennial and Gen Z workers are at the forefront of the movement. Baby Boomers and Gen X workers are older and less likely to leave their jobs.

I have a slightly different view of the motivation of employees who are quiet quitters. The idea that you will only do the minimum necessary to get by strikes a chord with what I have written about for years. The lack of a strong work ethic. It would seem that quiet quitters think of themselves first and the job second. They don’t want to feel like a hostage to the expectations of them in the workplace.

According to a study by Gallup, quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workplace. Moreover, U.S. employee engagement took another step backward during the second quarter of 2022, with the proportion of engaged workers remaining at 32% but the proportion of actively disengaged increasing to 18%. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade. According to Gallup, many quiet quitters fit its definition of being “not engaged” at work -- people who do the minimum required and are psychologically detached from their job. This describes half of the U.S. workforce. Gallup found a decline in engagement and employee satisfaction among remote Gen Z and younger millennials – those below age 35.

According to research by LLC, when quiet quitters decide to do the bare minimum in their roles, they’re often pushing some of their responsibilities off on others, whether they realize it or not. Naturally, that isn’t going to go over well with some of the quiet quitter’s colleagues. In the LLC report, 62% of employees surveyed said they are annoyed by the trend of quiet quitting, with 57% stating that they had to take on extra work because a colleague had quietly quit.

Let’s face it, who would want to work with others who have all but given up on their job, at least with respect to pursuing maximum performance. Just like the decline in work ethics, these kinds of behaviors are unethical because the quiet quitter stops worrying about the pursuit of excellence, the end goal of Aristotelian ethics. What ever happened to achieving all that you can by working hard? Would the U.S. have been developed the way that it has if hard work and dedication wasn’t front and center in meeting job responsibilities?

Indicators of Quiet Quitting

According to Beth Braccio, writing for Business Management Daily, possible indicators of quiet quitting include:

  • Not bothering to attend optional trainings, meetings, or social events.
  • Keeping communication and interaction to a bare minimum.
  • Unwillingness to volunteer for extra duties or to take on challenging assignments.
  • Arriving and leaving in exact accordance with scheduled work hours.
  • Not answering emails, texts, or calls outside of work hours.
  • Cynicism or apathy about new procedures or initiatives.
  • Following directions and completing work but not generating new ideas or producing beyond basic expectations.

I don’t know how anyone could defend these behaviors. How can managers depend on workers who have ‘checked-out?’ Moreover, because these kinds of behaviors mean other employees must pick up the slack, a culture of distrust could arise and, taken to an extreme, a hostile work environment.

How Coworkers Are Affected

Coworkers are directly affected by quiet quitters. The LLC survey points to a variety of workplace annoyances including:

  • 83% have a coworker who annoys them
  • 21% have considered quitting due to an annoying coworker
  • 62% find it annoying when coworkers “quiet quit”
  • 52% say annoying coworkers prevent them from doing their best work
  • 45% find it annoying when companies ask employees to return to the office after working remotely.

Three-in-ten say Gen Z are the most annoying age demographic to work with.

Creating A More Supportive Work Environment Images

A post by teambuilding.com on how to prevent quiet quitting identifies the main factors leading to employee quiet quitting including:

  • Excessive workload.
  • Poor communication.
  • Blurred boundaries.
  • Lack of manager support.
  • Unclear or shifting expectations.
  • Poor communication or conflict resolution skills.

Braccio, provides some good ideas to create a better work culture including:

  • Make mental health a priority.
  • Pay staff for extra work.
  • Resist bothering people outside of business hours.
  • Watch being guilty of quiet firing.
  • Prioritize communication.

Sometimes employers are their worst enemy. The term “quiet firing” is when an employer tries to get away with providing the bare minimum in terms of pay, benefits, support, and other resources. Employers also pile on extra work and project an attitude that if you don’t like it, you can leave. When an employer engages in quiet firing they disrespect employees, engendering fear that their jobs may be on the line, and they can create a contentious workplace environment that spreads to other workers.

Economics of Quiet Quitting

The final point is the economics of quiet quitting. In neoclassical economics, workers are paid their “marginal product,” – meaning the more productive they are, the more they are paid. This creates strong incentives against quitting. However, tracking productivity may be challenging in today's digital workplace.

The idea of a “principal-agent” relationship in the workplace holds that the principal (boss) enlists an agent (the worker) to do a specific job for them. The problem is the principal may not have complete information on work productivity, although “digital productivity modeling” may provide the oversight needed to accurately assess workplace productivity of both employees and managers.

There is no doubt that the workplace culture of today is different from that of years ago and employers need to adjust.  This could mean getting to know employees outside of work, allowing for more remote work, enhancing emplyee work/life balance by considering flexible hours, providing incentives to move up the ladder quickly in the organization, welcoming diversity in the workplace, and respecting workers for who they are, not who the employer would prefer to see.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on November 8, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website  (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.