If you are in the habit of taking your life-advice from Tik Tok, you will have seen encouragement recently to join the “quiet-quitters”. These are the Gen Z workers who make a conscious decision to do the bare minimum at work, those who have “left the building” mentally (and if hybrid working, also physically) but have not had the decency to do so contractually as well.
The context for this new attitude is said to be two years of pandemic, a combination of lockdown, physical and mental distance from one’s employer, perhaps a spot of furlough and a resulting overwhelming sense of why bother. Research by HR benefits platform Employment Hero suggests that 51% of those surveyed feel that the pandemic and its trailing effects have reduced the importance they attach to their career to the point where [over-worked cliché alert, sorry] they now work to live where previously they may have lived to work.
The underlying principle of “quiet-quitting” is that you still do your hours, still do what you need to get done, but that you don’t make any discretionary effort and don’t stay longer in the office or on the email just to be seen, but they can’t sack you for that, right? Two adherents of the principle are quoted on BBC Online as feeling “empowered and motivated” and as “giving power back to themselves” (though this may be pretty short-term gratification – the same report says that both employees have since lost the jobs from which they quiet-quit).
Without wanting to sound more than necessarily like Colonel V. Angry (retd.) of Tunbridge Wells writing to the Daily Telegraph, this is surely all fantastically naïve. Pursuit of a containable work:life balance is admirable and the pandemic has brought colossal and mostly positive change in how that is achieved. Equally, it has obviously directly and indirectly done terrible damage to the career plans of millions, but quiet-quitting is beyond sensible argument not the way to restore that.
It is of course all a matter of personal choice. If you are willing to bump along the bottom in money and career terms in return for more time at home, then that is up to you and you cannot be criticised for that decision. But make it wisely, for the biggest risk in quiet-quitting is the fallacy that if you just “do your hours” and nothing more, your employer cannot touch you for it.
If doing the minimum means not looking for extra opportunities, not seeking access to formal or informal learning, not engaging with leaders, but just coming in, doing your stuff and pushing off again, then at the very least you will hardly be able to complain when peers and even subordinates begin to accelerate past you both financially and professionally.
In addition, while not every employment contract contains the sort of “body and soul” expectation of some industry sectors, most will include some obligation on the employee to work beyond normal hours if reasonably required for the performance of the role, often without additional remuneration. Their basic hours are not then 9-5, but however long it takes. As a matter of basic contract, therefore, “working to rule” in this way is not actually compliance with your terms of employment, as the quiet-quitters suggest, but a breach of them.
In addition, there is the question of how it all looks. In principle leaving spot on time can be praised as top-notch task management, but it will inevitably be seen as demonstrating instead a lack of commitment, of initiative, of ambition. The problem with manifesting a lack of interest in your role, whether intentionally or otherwise, is that it will soon lose interest in you — if you stop trying to impress your boss, then he/she will be, well, unimpressed. If we have the brutal recession which commentators suggest is imminent, then employers will probably be looking at redundancies this side of Christmas. If you then score relatively poorly on indicators such as drive, initiative, flexibility and skill-set because you have quiet-quit, the finger of fate is going to point only one way. Added to which, when it comes to looking for your next role, a solid record of minimum achievement, stalled personal development, last-generation skills and tepid testimonials will leave you up against it there too.
It would be wrong to blame the Tik Tok generation exclusively for this. Employers have some responsibility in it too. They can easily alienate staff by over-promising and under-delivering, by appearing remote or hard to speak to or not seeming to listen, by demanding more without at least the prospect of something in return and generally by taking their people for granted. Many of the examples in the press seem to relate to employees who took on extra hours or responsibility and then weren’t immediately rewarded for it, which Colonel Angry would no doubt see not as an understandable psychological reaction to societal changes but a combination of the unrealistic expectations of “the youth of today” and sulking. Some of the headlines (using the word loosely, obviously) suggest that quiet-quitting is also to avoid burn-out, but the reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Burn-out is not a function of hours or pressure alone but of how those issues are balanced out by your perception of how you are respected and treated by your employer. This trend, if such it is, will mostly surface when that balance falls out of kilter.
The tragedy of quiet-quitting is that it is often driven by an absence of mutual understanding. The consistent advice of the cloud of experts and consultants fluttering around it as the topic of the moment is that if you feel so turned off your job that you are contemplating this form of passive resistance, you should speak to your manager or employer about how you feel. They may or may not have an easy resolution for you, but at least you will understand their position and then be able to make potentially suicidal career decisions on an informed basis. As an employer you may be too bound up in your own economic or business stresses to have appreciated the difficulties which some of your employees are facing, but even if you cannot point to an immediate way out of them, being seen to listen and discuss the situation with empathy and a genuinely open mind may well make all the difference.