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The Sound of Silence: Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing, and What You Should Do About It

Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP
by Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP on November 10, 2022

Move over “great resignation”, there is a new trend in town: “quiet quitting.” While quiet quitting—defined as employees not going above and beyond at work and just meeting the bare minimums of their job description—may not be a new concept, the term has recently garnered excessive attention on social media and has become a rallying cry for frustrated employees. Another term making its rounds on social media, that one should “act your wage,” is a rebranding of the same idea. In essence, social media is now rife with the message that an employee should deliberately avoid over-achieving, and only perform work commensurate with their perception of their rate of pay.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in June 2022, “quiet quitters” (defined in this study as employees that are neither engaged nor actively disengaged in the workplace) make up at least 50% of the US workforce. The data suggests these employees:

  1. Relate their behavior to a lack of clarity on expectations,
  2. Perceive no opportunity to learn and grow,
  3. Feel disregarded or not cared about, and
  4. Are otherwise disconnected from the company’s mission.
This social trend can be connected to the great resignation, and to the drop in engagement among employees in the second half of 2021. The resulting mass resignation of that time, with many of these disengaged employees coming from management roles, forms the basis for this new social media trend.

So, How Are Employers Responding to Quiet Quitting?

Some have turned to “quiet firing.” Quiet firing refers to reducing or completely cutting an employee’s duties or, for nonexempt employees, their hours, as a means to make the job untenable until the employee voluntarily quits (as opposed to terminating the same employee). Sometimes quiet firing also manifests as employers allowing an employee’s colleagues or manager to treat them poorly or ignoring grievances the employee may report. After all, if you want someone to leave the company, why should you make their life easier?

Before you take the quiet firing route, be aware there are many pitfalls with this method of dealing with unmotivated employees. First, state and federal labor law may view such action as a constructive dismissal, defined as an employer creating a situation where a reasonable employee is forced to quit against their will. A constructive dismissal can lead to an employee being considered eligible for unemployment, since state agencies would consider a constructive dismissal to be an involuntary termination. By the same token, a constructive dismissal may open your company to a wrongful termination claim, which can cost your company time and money in legal expenses.

Further, singling out an employee in the process of “quiet firing” could be regarded as disparate treatment. For example, if an employer were to arbitrarily cut one employee’s hours instead of another, the affected employee may be able to claim discrimination or retaliation (such as by arguing that a certain protected category they are affiliated with was the motivation for the disparate treatment they received). Finally, if other employees are permitted, or even encouraged, to treat another employee in a hostile or harassing manner, an employer’s failure to take appropriate remedial action may also result in a harassment claim.

What Should an Employer Do if They Believe They Have an Employee Engaged in Quiet Quitting?

At times, the most tried and true method is best: coaching and corrective action. Meetings with employees that are underperforming, to discuss areas where the employee can make improvements and what expectations they need to meet, will invariably protect the employer by creating documentation of the employee’s behavior, and by showing the employer’s active mitigation of any problematic circumstances. Routine check-ins with employees can also be utilized to identify any barriers for the employee in performing their job successfully. Such dialogue with employees can assist in determining whether the employee requires additional resources or support they don’t have on the job, or whether even non-work-related issues, like a disability, require attention. If old-school coaching does not provide the desired outcome, it may be time to issue formal corrective action, such as written warnings, suspension, or even termination. In many cases, employers will find it much easier to take formal corrective action against an employee after engaging in the coaching method, as the routine meetings and dialogue with each employee often supplies the corrective action record that will easily justify the formal actions being taken by management.

There are other preventative measures to address quiet quitting as a whole. The above Gallup poll found that only one in three managers are engaged at work, drawing a connection between the engagement of management and of employees. Accordingly, employers should take note of their managers’ engagement levels first. Employers should recognize performance issues with managers early on, and ensure managers are provided with the tools needed to succeed, grow, collaborate, and build the trust and respect of employees.

Managers should also learn how to have conversations with employees to get them engaged and have regular conversations with their employees to get to know them on an individual level. Identifying an individual employee’s strengths and goals leads to efficiency gains in the workplace, and to identifying possible future promotions and responsibilities. During this process, managers can create accountability for individual employees, show employees how their work contributes to the company’s overall mission, and make employees feel more connected to their work. Such engagement, in practice, helps to remedy the isolation frequently cited by “quiet quitters.” At the same time, active and engaged managers will assist with identifying and documenting issues with disruptive employees, while at the same time reducing the employer’s exposure to any legal risks associated with terminating or formally correcting such employees.

If you are having difficulty with your employees’ performance, attendance, and/or conduct and think you may have a quiet quitting or engagement issue in your company, reach out to your HR Consultant to help develop a plan to get your workforce back on track.

Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP
Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP

Cymone Carlson is a FrankAdvice Sr. Human Resources Consultant. She is a Senior Certified Professional in Human Resources (SHRM-SCP) and holds a Master’s degree from the University of Florida. Cymone has firsthand HR experience working within nonprofits, manufacturing, distribution, healthcare, hospitality, and government contracts.