The term “quiet quitting” seemed to come out of nowhere this summer. Nobody was searching for the phrase in mid-July, according to Google Trends. But then came TikTok videos and headlines in mainstream media like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and more about the phenomenon, and by mid-August, “quiet quitting” had become ubiquitous.
But quiet quitting — commonly defined as doing the bare minimum on the job — isn’t anything new. Long before the term went viral on social media, workers have clocked in and checked out, said Ashley Cox, founder and CEO of Human Resources consulting firm SproutHR.
So why the sudden spike in attention? As employees have been leaving their jobs in droves during the Great Resignation, some workers may be getting louder about their “quiet quitting” habits before they actually leave. And today, as companies attempt to slow the mass exodus of departing employees, they need to pay more attention to the warning signs of quiet quitting.
The good news for employers is that there is plenty they can do to spot quiet quitters, starting with giving them reasons to stay engaged. “People are saying nobody wants to work anymore,” said Cox. But, she pointed out, that’s not the full picture: “Nobody wants to work for a company that doesn’t pay well and that treats them like less than human,” she said. “If we want respect from our employees, we have to first give respect. It’s reciprocal.”
Respect can be extended by listening to employees, and effective engagement strategies that emphasize conversations and relationship-building can do just that. Here’s why workers quiet quit — and how to prevent it with a robust engagement strategy.
What is Quiet Quitting?
Some have defined quiet quitters as workers who aren’t willing to participate in the so-called “hustle culture” — overworking at the expense of their own personal lives and mental health. But Sarah Skidmore, CEO of Skidmore Consulting, a consulting company that provides leadership training, disagrees. “It’s [really just] having boundaries, and that’s what we want to see,” Skidmore said. “Because having boundaries is ultimately going to prevent long-term burnout and some of the retention issues that overworked teams face.”
A better description of quiet quitters is workers who aren’t completing even basic tasks, noted Skidmore. And one party plays an outsized role in this, she said: leadership. Quiet quitters are often a sign that leaders and managers don’t have the tools and training needed to engage their workforce.
It’s also a red flag that the work environment may not feel like a safe space for workers to voice their opinions or dissatisfaction to leadership, said Miriam Groom, founder of career counseling practice Mindful Career. Not feeling psychologically safe “is one of the main culprits as to why people are quiet quitting,” she said.
6 Engagement Tactics to Curb Quiet Quitting
Effective engagement strategies that enable leaders and managers to communicate and build relationships with employees are critical in today’s workforce. Here are six engagement strategies that can prevent quiet quitting and boost overall employee motivation.
1. Regular One-on-Ones
One-on-ones with direct reports give managers a consistent checkpoint where they can monitor their employees for signs of burnout — from flagging interest in a project, to little movement on a development plan. Consider one-on-ones an “empowerment tool,” Skidmore said, where employees can get the support or advice they need to overcome challenges.
The execution is key, noted Cox. One-on-ones should be two-way conversations and they should not focus exclusively on an employee’s stumbles or failures; only paying attention to shortcomings, never providing any positive reinforcement, and not allowing an employee to direct these discussions is a surefire way to prompt workers to check out.
“We miss so many opportunities when we don’t say, ‘This time is for you. What do you want to talk about? What are you proud of? What are you struggling with? Where do you need my support?’” Cox said.
2. Consistent Feedback and Praise
Too many employers hold off on offering any feedback or praise until the annual review. But if you want to prevent disengagement and quiet quitting, that’s not enough. Continuous feedback helps keep employees on track in their work and career growth, while regular praise that celebrates their efforts ensures they feel valued and boosts their sense of belonging.
Organizations need to make sure they have systems in place for providing feedback and praise, advised Skidmore. “We don’t want to be in a space where there are only a couple of shining stars getting notice and praise,” she said.
Employee recognition programs might include a public celebration during an all-hands meeting, or a points-based system where individuals earn cash or prizes for great work. Just be mindful that being in the spotlight isn’t a motivator for every worker. “Not everyone wants to have their name all over the place,” Skidmore said.
For those who shy away from the spotlight, an expression of appreciation through a personal note or email, or privately during a one-on-one, can be an effective way to recognize their achievements.
3. Tangible Goals
Too many organizations set company-wide OKRs and goals without tying them to individual employees’ work and achievements. This practice can leave workers wondering whether their contributions matter in the bigger picture. “[It] can do a lot to harm morale,” cautioned Skidmore. “Folks like to have purpose and meaning in their work.”
Leaders and executives must ensure that team members understand the importance of their role and see how they are contributing to organizational goals. For example, leaders can break down each company goal into shorter milestones for departments, teams, and individuals to work toward, advised Skidmore. A marketer, for instance, might need to launch a new campaign in the first quarter to help the organization reach its annual sales goal. “Make it clear how that contributor is impacting the success toward that [larger organizational] goal,” Skidmore said.
4. Accessible Career Development
Today’s Gen Z and millennial workers have made it clear that they expect to grow at work. When asked why they chose to work for their current organization, 29% of respondents in this demographic selected “learning and development opportunities,” second only to a “good work/life balance,” according to the Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey.
To compete in today’s labor market and satisfy workers’ expectations, employers must provide the time and opportunity for career development, whether that be obtaining a new certification or attending a conference. Managers can gauge workers’ needs and interests during one-on-ones and through the creation of individual development plans, a hands-on approach that lets employees guide their own career growth.
“When we only do things that benefit the company and not the individuals, it’s obviously going to be felt by the employees,” Cox said. “At the end of the day, if we’re really investing in our people [through development opportunities], it will always come back to us” in a positive way.
5. Routine Check-Ins
But experts advise using caution when surveying employees so your efforts don’t do more harm than good. For instance, if you promise that the results will be anonymous and confidential, build in the safeguards to ensure that happens. “You need to use technology or a third-party vendor that allows it to truly be confidential,” Skidmore said.
And know that if an employee’s voice isn’t valued in the workplace, they'll be disinclined to respond to a survey. “If you’re not in a psychologically safe environment, your surveys won’t be filled out, your interviews won’t be answered correctly, [and] nothing will be done because [employees] are scared,” cautioned Groom.
Similarly, if you’re going to survey your employees, you must take meaningful action based on the results. If you routinely don’t do anything to address concerns employees have expressed, it will degrade their trust in management and leadership, and likely decrease survey participation over time.
6. Fair Compensation
Nobody takes a job with the expectation that they’ll be paid unfairly, but wage gaps based on race and gender, while narrowing, continue. That may be changing, however, as younger workers are more vocal about pay. According to a March 2022 Bankrate survey, about 40% of Gen Z and millennial workers had shared their salary information with a coworker or professional contact, compared to 31% of Gen Xers and only 19% of baby boomers.
In other words, employees are increasingly comparing their compensation with others, and employers must be mindful of this trend. Having the tools in place, such as regular compensation reviews to ensure employees are paid fairly and at market rate, and a compensation philosophy that guides how an organization pays and rewards its employees, are critical.
“We cannot pay people bottom-of-the-barrel wages and then expect them to be engaged and excited to show up and go above and beyond every single day,” Cox said.
Trained Leaders Lead to Happy Workers
As organizations embark on engagement efforts to quash quiet quitting, managers may present the biggest hurdle. If they aren’t trained to listen to their direct reports, clear roadblocks, and lead and coach, engagement strategies will fall flat. “[Training managers] is going to be essential to keeping your team members engaged in the organization,” Skidmore said.
But, with properly trained leadership, and the right engagement tools that keep workers excited about the mission of their employer and their role in moving it forward, organizations can curb the quiet quitters and continue to tap into the excitement that employees initially felt when they were hired.
“When people start jobs, they’re excited. They’re anticipating everything that’s possible for them,” Cox said. “And that is such a beautiful and magical time in a new hire’s life. We have to capitalize on that right from the beginning — that excitement, that enthusiasm, [and the] intrinsic motivation that people have.”
Few people start a new job with the intention of becoming quiet quitters. Often, employers have unknowingly contributed to this phenomenon because they’ve allowed a work environment to exist where people don’t feel heard, appreciated, or valued.
Luckily, there is a solution. When employers double down on their engagement strategies, they can shore up the employee experience, curb quiet quitting, and even turn employees into loud and proud promoters of the company and its mission. This will serve to boost retention, attract top talent, and help build goodwill and growth for the organization into the future.
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