Secrets of Quiet Quitting

Identifying underlying causes and prevention strategies

By Terry Troy

While it may be a relatively new term in our business lexicon, Quiet Quitting has been around for as long as there have been workers. Even career coaches and business leadership professionals have trouble defining it, yet they all acknowledge that it does exist and is a problem that is growing—especially among younger employees.

A Gallup survey conducted in June of last year of suggested that Quiet Quitters make up at least 50% of the American workforce, with an even higher percentage among workers under 35.

So what exactly is it?

Quiet Quitting refers to an employee who does the bare minimum requirements of a job or position without putting in additional time, effort and especially enthusiasm. No more staying late, showing up early or attending non-mandatory meetings. Yet the worker doesn’t leave their job and still collects a paycheck.

“Everyone has their ups and downs in the course of a job. The pandemic and the shakeup it caused for all of us in terms of where and how we do our work (if we were lucky enough to have a job that allowed for remote work or in a business that wasn’t shut down) definitely made many of us consider what sort of work we might find more fulfilling,” says Eliza Wing, a communications consultant and senior adviser with Dix & Eaton in Cleveland. Wing is also a life coach and co-founder of Your Awakened Heart, which offers mindfulness classes and retreats for individuals and organizations. 

“Quiet quitting seems to be another name for working in the midst of burn out, which is an old and common problem,” Wing adds. 

It may be a little harder for factory workers to become Quiet Quitters. After all, there are production goals and quotas that must be met. However, today’s office workers, especially in the light of the massive disruptions caused by COVID, have changed the business dynamic to be more in line with personal expectations.

“The pandemic and the shakeup it caused for all of us … definitely made many of us consider what sort of work we might find more fulfilling.”
—Eliza Wing, communications consultant and senior adviser with Dix & Eaton in Cleveland

If Quiet Quitters have been around, are we just giving them a politically correct moniker? That depends on who you ask. In my day, we used to call them “slackers.” But such derisive terms rarely solve anything.

“When we talk about Quiet Quitting, we are really just coining a phrase for something that has been happening for a long time,” says Christy Shell, executive, career and life coach and founder of Zeal Coaching for Life & Career in Troy. “I think people are still committed to coming to work, but they are not going to go above and beyond, like they have been conditioned to do over the years.”

During the pandemic, people became very stressed, and they began prioritizing their lives, says Shell.

“They really started to question their values,” she says. “This was especially true of salaried folks who don’t necessarily work a 40-hour week, which had become more like a 55-hour week.”

But was the pandemic the only causal factor?

“For many people, the focus on the disparity between race and ethnicity also was really laid bare, especially after George Floyd’s murder, and the way wages have not kept up with inflation, which has been true for several years.” says Audrey Treasure, vice president and executive director of the Workforce Innovation Center at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

But even before that, trouble was brewing, she notes.

“The transformation of technology, prior to the pandemic, worked its way deep into all aspects of our lives, especially with office workers,” she says. “We get emails, we developed these little computers in our pockets called cell phones and there became an expectation that employees would be available around the clock, or at least in very short order, because the technology is available to us.”

So Quiet Quitting could be a reaction to the increased intrusion of technology into our private lives.

Team NEO, an economic development organization in Northeast Ohio, recently partnered with The Fund for Our Economic Future in Cleveland on a project entitled” Where Are the Workers?”

“What was really clear was that the workers had a different set of expectations,” says Jacob Duritsky, vice president of strategy and research for Team NEO. “They want more flexibility. They want to be embedded in the future. They want to see clear career paths. So that all translates to a lot of gray area in the current marketplace.

“I don’t think we have solved how we find a happy balance yet. And frankly, after what we have been through for the last 36 months, some of it is to be expected.”

While it’s hard to track Quiet Quitting, the Fund for Our Economic Future’s Where Are the Workers project took a demographically representative sample of 5,000 working adults across 11 counties in Northeast Ohio. The biggest impact on the labor force, the study found, was that more than early retirements, stimulus checks or the health impacts of COVID, there was a change in worker sentiment.

“What was really clear was that the workers had a different set of expectations… So that all translates to a lot of gray area in the current marketplace.”
—Jacob Duritsky, vice president of strategy and research for Team NEO

The pandemic shattered the traditional image of work and transformed people’s relationship with it. People are quitting their jobs in record numbers, and they are choosing to work somewhere else, work part-time, do gig work, work from home; work, but work differently. Employers able to respond and adapt to these changes will come out on top.

“Workers want better compensation, better culture and more meaningful connection to the work they do,” says Bethia Burke, president of the fund. “The good news is every workplace can respond to these changing dynamics in some way. We’ve created a resource that defines what it means to become an ‘employer of choice.’”

Like the fund, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber also offers advise on how to deal with Quiet Quitters.

“What we are offering at the Workforce Innovation Center is a consulting practice within the chamber,” says Treasure. “We are designed to help employers figure out what might be driving some of their most pressing talent needs. If an employer is having difficulty attracting talent to a position that they have open, we can work with an employer to help expand their recruitment and hiring process and to figure out how they might make themselves more appealing to prospective employees.”

All of which addresses the issue of Quiet Quitting before it actually becomes a problem.

“If they are finding that people are not staying long enough to get promoted, we can work with them to develop more pathways to advancement for their people,” adds Treasure. “And if they want to know how their policies or employee handbooks stand up against other employers, we can provide them some great comparisons and give them ideas on how they can make themselves more relevant.”

While Shell works with individuals who are looking to make a shift or an upward move in their careers, she also works with company leadership, which is dealing with the phenomenon, new or not.

“And leadership is often dealing with the crunch of having more tasks than people who are willing to do the job,” says Shell. “So it is really coming from both sides.”

The bad news is that this is not a fly-by-night trend that will go away once the labor market tightens and jobs become scarcer, Shell adds.

“It is not something that will be overcome,” she says. “We are going to have to adjust the actual tasks within a department and decide what is possible in a given amount of time. It’s interesting because I have company leaders say to me, ‘Well, my young people just don’t want to work. And then they wonder why they are not getting ahead.’”

The real challenge, says Shell, is that there are responsibilities that are not getting done.

“So I really think that companies have to start to look at their employees’ roles and their expectations, and then realign their work processes and tasks,” she says.

They may have to hire additional people or try and figure out different roles and ascertain which tasks can be deleted or automated—all of which could reduce pressure on employees.

The key to solving the riddle of Quiet Quitters is listening to employees, says Shell.

“They may want to spend more time hiking, or spending time with their family,” she says. “They may have a new baby, so you have to take into account what their family situation is. You have to customize things for individual employees. Look at what is a priority and customize things for them. And then incentivize that whether it means through money or lifestyle accommodation.”

And sometimes the answer to the perception of “Quiet Quitting” is very practical, if companies simply listen to their employees.

“As a part of our research with the fund, we had 22 different roundtables,” says Duritsky. “One of the stories that stuck with me was from a small manufacturer who complained that a small cohort of their employees was always late.”

The shift would start at 6 a.m. but the workers would consistently show up at 6:30 a.m. even if they were getting their pay docked.

“The manufacturer finally asked the employees why they were consistently late, and the answer was that the only bus line that came by would arrive at 6:20,” says Duritsky. “Other than that, they would have to come to work almost two hours earlier. So the company shifted its starting time to 6:30, and the problem was solved. It wasn’t a big issue, it was just a matter of having a conversation.”

“Managers and leadership have to be task accountable, but we also have to be accountable to our people and understanding of their needs and connections to their work,” says Shell. “We have to make sure that we are growing and nurturing leaders that are focused on both sides. But we also have to be aware that our leaders are tired, too, and sometimes they are quietly quitting.

“I don’t see us returning to the way it was before. I don’t think we will ever return to the point where people feel they have to hustle again. We are just going to have to change and adjust our cultures.”

“As a life coach and former executive at Northeast Ohio companies and organizations, I counsel many individuals regarding their relationship to work,” adds Wing from Dix & Eaton. “Ideally, we ought to be working in a job that is fulfilling and challenging and that we care deeply about—after all, we are spending a majority of our days in the work.”