Whether it’s in the next two weeks or in 20 years, everyone quits their job eventually. Some people get a gold watch and a retirement party, while others resign to pursue an opportunity at another organization without much fanfare. In 2022, a viral TikTok video pushed the term “quiet quitting” into the headlines. But what exactly is this phenomenon, and what can be done to address these quiet quitters?

“Quiet quitting has very little to do with leaving a job,” explains Eric Bailey, president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group. “It essentially means that people are willing to do exactly the bare minimum to get their job done, and nothing more.”

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Definitions do vary, as some folks take it a step further. Rather than excelling in one role, a quiet quitter takes a second remote job and does just enough to not get fired from either employer — while collecting two paychecks. Despite the deception involved in these examples, Bailey believes society is moving towards this model.

“With more millennials running organizations and more of Gen Z working,” he says, “there’s a shift in the idea of what work can and should be, and people are asking, ‘Why can’t I have three jobs at the same time if I’m getting all my work done?’”

There is a distinction, Bailey continues, between coasting at work and being outright malicious to an employer. “A lot of people are going viral on TikTok for their quitting antics where they’re sabotaging their teammates and leaving them high and dry,” he says. “That’s not quiet quitting, that’s loud, attention-grabbing quitting.”

Old wine, new bottles

For Peter Hom, professor at Arizona State University, the notion that quiet quitting is something new to the business world is a case of putting old wine in new bottles. Hom has studied employee turnover and job embeddedness for more than 40 years, identifying factors that cause workers to leave voluntarily.

“One of the latest projects I completed recently was to look at the behaviors that employees emit — consciously or subconsciously — that might signal to a manager they’re about to leave the organization,” he says.

In that study, Hom and his colleague surveyed funeral home directors about the conduct of various employees, then came back months later to see if they had left the organization. The goal was to identify any behaviors that could forecast an employee’s resignation, known as “turnover cues.”

When Hom first heard about quiet quitting, he says it reminded him of several concepts he researches, including a theory called progression of withdrawal, where dissatisfied employees perform milder withdrawal acts, such as tardiness or absenteeism, before they actually quit.

Even workers who abstain from organizational citizenship — such as joining committees, volunteering or attending the work holiday party — but otherwise perform their assigned duties, could be signaling their withdrawal through a lack of engagement. Through this lens, quiet quitters are exhibiting behaviors that crescendo to their departure from the company.

Another possibility, Hom continues, is that quiet quitters are “slackers” who are loyal only to their paycheck. These workers want to stay in their current role primarily because they enjoy their benefits and don’t work a stressful or demanding job. Hom points to white-collar unionized workers or people employed at state-owned businesses in China as examples.

Lastly, quiet quitters might be “reluctant stayers” who want to leave their jobs but feel bound by circumstance.

“What we discovered in empirical studies is [reluctant stayers] are actually more likely to quit,” Hom explains. “They might not leave their current job because they don’t have any good job options. But once they do, or once their kids graduate from high school, they don’t feel as trapped and can leave a job that they despise.”

Labor market conditions and the new business environment developing in the post-pandemic world could contribute to quiet quitting grabbing mainstream attention, according to Hom. Pervasive remote work, he says, allows slackers to flourish and unprecedentedly low unemployment rates empower employees to resist corporate mandates to return to the office.

The throughline between these concepts Hom describes — progression of withdrawal, slackers and reluctant stayers — is an employee who is not engaged in their work.

Back in the fold

Quiet quitting presents both a challenge and opportunity for organizations. From a strictly legal perspective, Marc Lamber, partner at Fennemore Craig, explains that Arizona businesses can fire employees for anything beyond a narrow set of protected reasons, such as the worker’s religion.

“There’s a difference between what’s lawful and what’s practical,” Lamber says. “It may be lawful to [fire someone for quiet quitting], but you’re in a situation where there aren’t a lot of workers out there and people are fighting over them. Losing people isn’t the answer.”

The real question employers should grapple with, Lamber contends, is how to reengage workers who may be quiet quitting.

“You’re never going to be able to read into someone’s brain and know that they’re trying to milk [their position] and just don’t want to work,” he continues. “Rather than thinking about cutting someone loose, maybe [employers] should be having a conversation with them and reconnecting with them. A lot happened to people over the last two and a half years. Ignoring that isn’t the way to deal with it.”

Bailey adds that many employees simply don’t feel connected to their work or immediate supervisor in any meaningful way. When workers don’t believe their company is committed to their success, they slide into a state of apathy.

“Quiet quitting is a symptom of management disengagement,” Bailey explains. “Managers are giving less because the work is hard, primarily because everyone’s short staffed and trying to do more with less. Managers aren’t taking the time to get to know the people they’re working with or acknowledging when someone has a success at work and celebrate them.”

As simple as it may sound, Bailey recommends managers should be consistently talking with their employees.

“The number one resource you have [as a manager] is your time, and it’s more valuable to your team than it is to you,” he concludes. “You should be spending five to 15 minutes a week with all your direct reports. If you have too many, adjust accordingly, but you should have meaningful time to get to know them on a human level, what’s going on inside and outside of work. Make them know that they’re seen, because that’s what builds that respect — and respect is what builds that extra effort.