Quiet Quitting Yes, It’s a Thing

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Quiet quitting isn’t really about quitting, it’s about burnout” – Anonymous

            A recent Gallup poll reports that 50% of the U.S. workforce is “quiet quitting”. Although the term “quiet quitting” is new in the HR lexicon, the act of quieting, mentally withdrawing from the job is not. Disengaged employees have been around for years, they’ve just been quiet about it. No definition is necessary, these are the people that are noticed clocking in just about starting time, getting coffee at exactly 10:00 AM every day; taking a full one-hour lunch break; and leaving at 5:00 PM on the dot. What’s wrong with that? It seems like everyone else’s workday. But what’s different is that quiet quitters are unlikely to take home their laptops, work on weekends or holidays, volunteer for projects, or participate in employee functions. These people are doing just what they need to do to perform their jobs and get paid.

What brings on quiet quitting?  How does it seep into the psyche of employees?  There are a number of theories about employee disengagement. One is known as the “Quiet Quitting Pyramid” and forms a hierarchy much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the base of the pyramid is lack of trust. Where does lack of trust come from? Studies have shown that employee trust comes from demonstrated honesty and integrity within the organization. Maybe a person was promised a promotion or raise, and instead watched as someone else moved ahead in their place. Watching layoffs happen also impacts the trust of the employees left behind. When people wonder if they will be next, they become overly cautious and fearful, and want to stay under the radar and worry about being sept up in ensuing staff reductions.

Lack of consistency in the organization also encourages quiet quitting. When leaders don’t walk the talk, people become cynical about the job. When the messaging is “You are important to us/”, and people are denied time off or their bonus is reduced, or when a promised benefit like tuition reimbursement suddenly goes away (in the middle of the semester), management’s reliability is no longer taken seriously by the staff.

Lack of consistency supports the next level on the pyramid, that of the “lack of feeling valued”. Whether on purpose or inadvertently, people are often overlooked. The employee’s professional conference is not approved, fault is found with minute details, or disability pay is reduced, or being passed over for a reward or a special training. All these make people wonder why they are coming in every day and giving everything they have to the job. 

Even in families and social groups when people don’t feel valued, their “sense of belonging” comes into question. People want to feel proud of the place they work. They want to relay to the outside world how great their company is. They want to feel like they are on a fantastic team. But when the sense of belonging erodes, the employees who could be the best PR for the company, now become its biggest critics outside the workplace. Morale plunges and people become even more disengaged. If people don’t feel well treated and welcome inside the walls where they spend 8 or more hours a day, they most likely won’t feel loyalty, and it will show.

The top layer of the Pyramid of Quiet Quitting is “lack of communication”.  Nowhere else in the workplace is open, honest, and fair communication more important than in performance reviews. When people sit down with their managers to review their performance, there should be no surprises. However, often people are shocked to learn what their performance looks like to their boss. Many don’t realize that they are being judged on a bell curve, and statistically, 10% are overachievers, 80% are average achievers, and the remaining 10% are the underachievers. The boss has to fit all their employees into that paradigm. Likewise with raises. People don’t realize that the boss has a pot of money to distribute among his people. In most organizations, the distribution of raise dollars is arbitrary; the boss picks who he wants to receive a certain percentage of their salary as a raise. None of this is communicated to the employees beforehand. Imagine the shock when a good performer is pushed into the bottom 10% of performers and has no idea what may have gone wrong. In fact, given that mid-year reviews exist, the mid-year may give no hint that the employee must improve in certain areas. When the end of year performance review is presented, the employee may have no clue what await them. So, with a mortgage, car payments, college tuition to pay, the employee knows they have to keep their job. How do they survive? By quietly quitting and finding peace in just showing up, punching in and being in their assigned seat each day.

“Quiet quitting: Going above and beyond is beyond me”. – Anonymous

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Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.