If we do not take action to meet our employees’ needs and respect their rights to holistic, well-rounded lives, they will first disengage, then leave.
by Alida Miranda-Wolff
October 31, 2022
If “The Great Resignation” was the hallmark of 2021, with talent leaders struggling to diagnose the causes of employee attrition while also scrambling to hire replacements in a tight labor market, then it’s looking like 2022 is the year of “quiet quitting.”
Quiet quitting first gained notoriety in the TikTok community before spreading rapidly beyond the platform and into just about every workplace. The idea was simple: instead of quitting your job, just do the bare minimum to collect your biweekly paycheck.
This reversion to a familiar attitude of years past, that your role is “just a job” rather than a career or calling, comes alongside a mental health crisis among workers, as well as years of “hustle culture” proving significantly more beneficial to employers than the employees actually hustling.
Employees are tired of working unpaid overtime, completing out-of-scope assignments and meeting increasingly higher and higher bars, and being asked implicitly or explicitly to put their work above their health, family, friends and more. For employees from underrepresented genders, races and ethnicities, and disabilities, where the expectations set for them are even greater, quiet quitting may be the best survival strategy available in a world of ever-mounting pressures and fewer and fewer social supports.
But doing the bare minimum, disengaging from work, and in some examples of quiet quitting, actively subverting work expectations, runs counter to one of the talent leader’s essential tasks: fostering high employee engagement and ensuring team members are motivated, inspired and committed to the organization.
So, what is the oft-overworked talent leader to do?
Reconnecting with employee engagement fundamentals
To address this question, we first must go back to the source of the term engagement, Professor William Kahn of Boston University and his 1990 paper, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.”
Kahn conducted research on employees, who, as he describes in an interview with Workforce from 2015, were “doing only what needed to be done, as defined and directed by others, and their work had very little of their own personal selves, very little of what they thought and felt ought to happen as they went about their work.”
In his research, he found that managers were missing the mark, simply writing off employees as bad matches for their roles or looking to rewards and incentives as the only means of motivating them. However, what Kahn found as a better solution was something much more nuanced – employees needed to have agency and choice at work.
The solution to disengagement, then, was a combination of foundational practices often touted in modern workplaces today:
- Involving employees in the design and evolution of their roles, responsibilities, assignments and working relationships
- Creating environments where employees can safely show up as themselves
- Offering forums for employees to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation
- Balancing workplace productivity and needs with individual employee purpose and fulfillment
The reality is that in our competitive, performance-driven workplaces today, employee engagement, if it is a focus at all, is often seen as a means to an end (i.e., higher productivity) rather than part of honoring, respecting and supporting the needs of the people who power our organizations. Quiet quitting is a reaction to environments that seek to get more than they give from their employees, especially employees from the most disempowered social identity groups.
As Sarai Marie’s Tik Tok character Veronica says in a now viral video, “Respectfully, Susan, it’s 2022; we’re acting our wage, so don’t give me extra work.”
Bridging the gap between employees and organizations
“Quiet quitting” is a valuable mode of thinking for overworked, underpaid, and burned out employees, one that allows them to set boundaries their organizations would otherwise push.
It’s the talent leader’s responsibility to help managers understand that employees shouldn’t have to be the only ones considering healthy workplace boundaries.
They can do this by providing frameworks to rightsize job descriptions, set maximum hours, along with actively facilitating dialogues between managers and their employees to reintroduce the worker agency Kahn found so critical to employee engagement.
At Ethos, we’re no strangers to pushback from leaders and managers on what feels like a radically counterintuitive strategy when workplace productivity is the driver for profitability.
“You mean we’re cutting their hours and how much they are asked to do? Our business model cannot sustain that!”
For the purposes of this article, we’ll ignore the inherent flaws of a business model that depends on employees working beyond their scope as necessary for baseline solvency and instead focus on the reality of the situation. Quiet quitting is pervasive; if managers do not eliminate nice-to-have responsibilities and extra work, their employees will.
In our modern workplace, our priority should be quality over quantity.
Talent leaders can counsel managers that a good, collaborative rightsizing process can result in stronger bonds, higher sentiments and even better quality work.
To begin the rightsizing journey, talent leaders can take a few simple steps.
- Conduct a job description audit. Ensure every current employee has a job description that has been reviewed and revisited in the last year, accurately captures (at least in broad strokes) their role and is aligned with department responsibilities. Catalog the results of the audit in one, centralized space and prioritize working on the employees missing job descriptions or with severely outdated ones, moving onto more recently updated descriptions as you complete them.
- Coach managers through a robust editorial process. This step is especially important. Once you have accurate job descriptions for every employee – ones that capture what they do today – coach managers through editing the descriptions down. Since metrics keep us focused, set an initial goal of reducing the list of responsibilities in a job description by 20 percent. So, if an employee has ten responsibilities listed, help a manager determine the must-have responsibilities versus nice-to-have ones. Another way to do this is by forced ranking, with managers ranking the most important responsibility to least, aiming to completely pause or eliminate the bottom of the list.
- Support healthy, two-way conversations. While logistically challenging, steps one and two are relatively easy. Implementing them is another story. It’s one thing to say if it’s not in your job description, don’t do it. It’s another thing to deal with, let’s say, your bosses’ boss determining something you don’t think is important is essential. Your role as a talent leader here is three-fold.
- First, facilitate a conversation between the manager and their employee, framing the edited job description as a proposal. Make sure the employee can chime in with what’s missing in the job description, what they might find most fulfilling and enjoyable and what their take is on what is potentially being eliminated or shifted to someone else.
- Then, charge the manager with incorporating the feedback and completing the job description, with the goal of informing their manager of the changes and what that will mean for work and requests on their team.
- Finally, for the next six months, support the whole team in keeping to their “must-have” responsibilities and pausing, eliminating or shifting anything else to other teams. As confusion and miscommunication arise, be on standby to help mediate and clarify.
Ultimately, the trend towards quiet quitting should be seen for what it is: the canary in the coal mine. If we do not take action to meet our employees’ needs and respect their rights to holistic, well-rounded lives, they will first disengage, then leave. There’s a better option, one that sets employees and businesses up for greater long-term sustainability, and it all starts with the straightforward acceptance that we all need to do less, but better.