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Why we should notice the quiet quitters

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‘Quiet quitting’ – as widely reported - has nothing to do with quitting one’s job, but involves doing the minimum or ‘working your wage’. The practice is seemingly most associated with millennials and Gen Z who place a stronger emphasis on an appropriate work life balance than their predecessors.

This sense of working to live rather than living to work might be seen as a natural extension of heightened flexibility and changes to working practices post-COVID. Perhaps we have all got out of the habit of long hours spent in the office or in front of our computers at home?

How does quiet quitting impact businesses in a downturn?

For businesses, introducing flexible working to promote work-life balance might not be of concern if the levels of output they require are still being achieved. But in times of downturn and cost pressures (which look likelyto escalate) many organisations may rely on an X-1 headcount strategy, which requires all employees to ‘go the extra mile’. Without a highly motivated and committed workforce, high performance outputs cannot be maintained for long. Stress and dissatisfaction are likely to provide a perfect breeding ground for quiet quitting, whereby individuals retain the security of employment, but simply do the minimum that is required. In an economy where companies can’t afford to increase their workforce, this could spell trouble.

Types of employee commitment

For experienced HR professionals, despite the new ‘quiet quitting’ label, the phenomenon is not new. Indeed, according to Gallup, globally only 20% of employees are engaged at work, and commitment theorists have recognised for over 40 years the different types of employee commitment:

  • Above and beyonders: Some individuals, those most coveted by organisations, love their jobs, are enthusiastic and willing to go above and beyond.
  • Eye on the door: Here sit the ‘quiet quitters’ – those who will always seek to do the minimum, whilst considering their options and gauging the best time to leave.
  • Sense of duty: A final group who typically remain in their roles due to a vocational calling and personal sense of duty. As we head into the winter in the UK many of us might worry about how long this will endure and sustain our key workers, most notably within the NHS?

What can HR do to prevent ‘quiet quitting’?

Much has been written around the need for Senior HR teams to provide an architecture of high commitment work practices, likely to encourage their employees to give ‘discretionary effort’ within their roles. But despite the business benefits of discretionary effort, there is a ‘darker side’ around employees being asked to do more and more, until unsustainable performance expectations become the norm for certain individuals. Over time, such conditions and treatment are likely to turn even the most committed ‘above and beyonder’ into a quiet quitter. The challenge for HR practitioners and their senior teams is to ensure that the practices they put in place go beyond the rhetoric of ‘people are our most important asset’ to really value and reward employee commitment.

Dr Elizabeth Houldsworth is the programme director for Henley’s CIPD accredited MSc in International Human Resource Management.

Dr Elizabeth Houldsworth

Associate Professor of Leadership, Organisations and Behaviour
Published 7 September 2022
Leading insights

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