Preventing “Quiet Quitting”

Setting boundaries to reclaim work-life balance and sanity makes sense, but ghosting work responsibilities is not acceptable.

“Quiet quitting”—where employees are nominally employed but mentally checked out—is all the rage. The way I just described this phenomenon is not how those who practice it are describing it. Rather, they say, it’s not about being mentally checked out in a pejorative sense, but about reclaiming work-life balance and sanity. If work performance drops off during the process of getting back to a sense of peace and happiness, then so be it. The question I have: How do you know if an employee is quiet quitting? And can you educate them, so they don’t do it in the first place?

Articles about quiet quitting are popping up everywhere. I found a recent one on NPR’s Website that focuses on how the “quitting” part of it is a misnomer, and that it’s mostly about setting work-life boundaries. In the article, author Amina Kilpatrick notes that quiet quitting has gained a huge presence on TikTok. People are posting videos about their liberation from work without boundaries or balance.

“Quiet quitting doesn’t actually involve quitting. Instead, it has been deemed a response to hustle culture and burnout; employees are ‘quitting’ going above and beyond and declining to do tasks they are not being paid for,” Kilpatrick writes.

Setting Boundaries But Not Ghosting

Employees who are unreachable a few minutes past 5 p.m., or whenever their official end-of-workday is, would be a signal to me about new boundaries being set. That signal is not unreasonable, and even a good idea. What about the less reasonable signals, such as employees, who, without warning, fall through on assignments? Is not meeting the obligations of a job justified if an employee is doing so to reclaim work-life balance? I would say, “No.” The thing to do would be to express to the manager that the workload was becoming untenable, and then to work out an arrangement with the manager to pass some of the assignments to a co-worker or freelancer, or to extend the deadlines. Falling through without warning reminds me of a person who makes plans with you and then, without alerting you, doesn’t show up, leaving you waiting like a fool at a restaurant or outside a theater, twiddling your thumbs.

Shifting the Conversation Burden

Quiet quitting to reclaim time that should always have been the employee’s—such as at night, on the weekends, and on holidays—is noble and justified. However, ghosting on your work responsibilities is a passive-aggressive way of sending a message that should be delivered directly. When an employee stops doing an assignment(s) without warning, it forces the manager to take action or suffer in silence. In other words, it shifts the problem of speaking up from employee to manager. The manager is suddenly the one with a problem, the one who needs to press for a conversation. With the Great Resignation still in effect, it’s an employee’s market, so some employees may be gambling that their manager will not want to have a conversation that could lead to the loss of an employee.

When it’s an employee’s market, how do employers send a message to employees that they are valued without also sending a message that the company, and its managers, can be taken advantage of?

If your company tracks key performance indicators, and productivity is one of them, and you notice a decline in this key metric, a conversation with employees may be necessary. Instead of putting the burden on individual managers to have this uncomfortable conversation, there could be a town hall-style meeting in which one, or a few, key executives ask employees to share their expectations for work-life balance. The executives then could share their perspective of wanting to accommodate work-life balance needs while continuing to exceed customers’ expectations.

Meeting in the Middle

There could be a compromise in which the executives agree to enforce with managers that, barring an emergency, there should be no contacting employees after an agreed-on end-of-work time and no contact on the weekends, holidays, or when employees are on vacation. In return, the executives can reinforce the messaging that, unless other arrangements are made, assignments must continue to be well-executed and delivered on time. They can let employees understand that the proper way to handle feelings of being overwhelmed is to have a meeting with managers to come up with a new plan for getting work done. Employees should leave the meeting understanding that ghosting work responsibilities is never acceptable, regardless of how valued they are by the organization.

Are you noticing a decline in productivity in your organization? Do you need to have a conversation with your employees about how to better act on the feelings that sometimes lead to quiet quitting?