The term ‘quiet quitting’ is worse than nonsense

Employers have been trying to get inside their employees’ heads for more than a century. In 1920, Whiting Williams, a former personnel director in a steel company, even went undercover as a labourer before penning a book called What’s on the worker’s mind: by one who put on overalls to find out.

This year, a popular video on TikTok about “quiet quitting” has sent employee motivation experts into overdrive. According to Gallup, about half of Americans are “quiet quitters”, which it defines as people who are “not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description”. HR specialists and consultants have been quick to jump in with advice on how to fix the problem. An article in Harvard Business Review urged managers to ask themselves: “Is this a problem with my direct reports, or is this a problem with me and my leadership abilities?”

I don’t think it’s a problem at all. First, the Gallup survey data suggests this is neither new nor a trend. Just under a third of US workers were “engaged” and almost a fifth were “actively disengaged” in the second quarter of this year (Gallup defines “quiet quitters” as the group which is neither). The proportions have wobbled a little over time but are completely in line with the average since 2000.

Second, I would suggest that if your staff turn up every day and do exactly what you ask of them, they aren’t “quiet quitting”, they’re “working”. Some people will always be driven by ambition, enjoyment, perfectionism or insecurity to do more than is asked of them, but if you expect everyone to do that, by definition it isn’t “above and beyond” any more.

Indeed, companies which have built their business model on people constantly going “above and beyond” their job descriptions are on dangerous ground. Some of the rail disruption in the UK this summer was a case in point: operators like Avanti relied for years on staff voluntarily working extra shifts on their days off; when staff withdrew their goodwill, the service fell over.

Similarly, many companies in the video games industry have relied on “crunch” (a period of very long working hours) to meet deadlines. Some in the industry say this has evolved into a permanent “crunch culture”. According to a survey by the International Game Developers Association in 2019, 42 per cent of developers said crunch time was expected at their workplace and only 8 per cent were paid for overtime.

Shaun Rutland, chief executive of games company Hutch, says there can be camaraderie in extreme hours when you’re young, but it also damages people’s health and relationships to the ultimate detriment of the firm. He remembers having to work from 8am to 8pm for months as a youngster. “I was so grateful to get the job working in games, I was like: ‘this is it, I’m going to do everything I can’, [but] it made me so ill.”

Nor is it productive to overwork people. A study by Erin Reed, a management professor at McMaster University in Canada, found managers could not tell the difference between those who worked 80-hour weeks, and those who just pretended to.

Implicit in the corporate panic over “quiet quitting” is something deeper as well: the idea these people are “psychologically unattached” to their employers because their “engagement needs are not being fully met”, as Gallup puts it. But this is mushy ground to wade into. What if someone loves their work, but not the organisation they do it for, or vice versa? What if “purpose” matters for some people but not for others? What if some only do their job for money but they’re still really good at it?

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My advice to employers is to get out of employees’ heads, stop worrying about whether they love you or not, and focus on their output. Are they doing a good job, or aren’t they? That’s not to say there is no point in asking workers how they feel. But if you must do “engagement” surveys, my experience of speaking to workers over more than a decade would suggest you only need to ask three questions. Do you think your work is harming your health? Do you have a decent line manager? And do you think you’re paid fairly?

At its heart, the “quiet quitting” kerfuffle speaks to an unhealthy understanding of the relationship between companies and their staff. Employers don’t need to cater to employees’ every psychological need, and employees don’t need to be passionate about their employers. How about a simple contractual relationship of mutual respect and clearly defined obligations? I’m going to call it “work for grown-ups”. Now I just need to make a TikTok video about it.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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