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I’d Quiet Quit if I Knew What it Was

Celeste Mazur, St. Paul College; Grace Stelzner, Hamza Mustafa, and Dan Sachau Minnesota State University, Mankato

In a March of 2022 Business Insider article, Ito Aki described employees who were working in the wake of the Great Resignation and were quietly dialing back their efforts. On July 25, 2022, the term quiet quitting appeared in a 17-second Tik Tok post in which a young worker, Zaid Kahn, reflected on how a person’s worth should be defined by more than their labor (Khan, 2022). The clip went viral, a media blitz ensued, and quiet quitting became a national conversation topic. At this time of submission, “quiet quitting” produced 4,220,000 hits on Google.

For our purposes, quiet quitting refers to employees choosing not to engage in discretionary work above and beyond assigned job duties and doing so without communication to supervisors or coworkers. It is noteworthy that the term quiet quitting is a bit misleading because employees are not exactly quitting. They are doing their jobs, but as Selyukh (2022) describes it, employees are refusing to go the extra mile. In other words, workers are silently making the decision to step back, which leads to frustration of coworkers at having to pick up the slack (Telford, 2022).

The Media

Whether quiet quitting is perceived as a problem or a solution depends on the perspective one takes. Quiet quitting has been described in varied terms including a crisis of poor management (Harter, 2022; Zenger & Folkman, 2022), slacking on social media (Selyukh, 2022), unsubscription from hustle culture mentality (Ellis & Yang, 2022; Tapper, 2022), stepping back passive aggressively (Krueger, 2022), Generation Z pushing for a better work–life balance (Ellis & Yang, 2022), and “rejection of workplace exploitation” (Moscrop, 2022, para. 15). The causes and precursors of quiet quitting are fuzzy and ambiguous.

Some authors point out that the trend is not uniquely Western. Chinese media referred to a problem of employees tang ping (lying flat) in 2021 (BBC News, 2022). Other authors have noted that quiet quitting is nothing new and has long been known among executives as corporate coasting or quitting in place, among union leaders as working to rule, and among military personnel as ROAD (retiring on active duty) (Edmonds, 2018; Rosalsky & Selyukh, 2022; Thompson, 2022).

We found that media responses to quiet quitting generally fell into two camps. On one side, quiet quitting is posed as a generational or worker problem. There are media voices who claim nobody wants to work anymore, or the new generation is lazy and wants everything handed to them (Variety, 2022). Quiet quitting, to the people in this “kids these days” camp, means that younger employees are naturally disengaged, uninterested, and unconcerned about a company’s wellbeing. The focus is placed on the worker.

In the other camp, quiet quitting is posed as an employee’s psychological reaction to an unreasonable work environment, including toxic workplace culture, policies resulting in work–life imbalance, poor job design, excessive workload, and bleak economic conditions (Telford, 2022). What quiet quitting means to the people in the “environment” camp is employees are struggling with rapid social transitions and the workplace needs to be changed (Klotz & Bolino, 2022; Moscrop, 2022; Tapper, 2022). Within this perspective, the focus is placed on the worker’s environment and quiet quitting is a solution rather than a problem.

How Prevalent Is Quiet Quitting?

A widely cited Gallup study of over 15,000 full and part-time employees reported that at least 50% of the workforce are quiet quitters (Harter, 2022). However, quiet quitting is not measured directly. Study participants were labeled quiet quitters if they fell between actively engaged (32%) and actively disengaged (18%) on the Q12 Survey, Gallup’s 12-item employee engagement questionnaire.

Because the term quiet quitting is so new, there are very few direct measures of the construct, and there has been little time for empirical studies to appear. However, we found five perspectives on the causes of quiet quitting that may shape the discussion around the topic.

Possible Causes

1. Unhealthy workplace due to the labor shortage. One perspective on quiet quitting is that it is an engagement problem caused by the labor shortage (Harter, 2022; HRNews, 2022; Klotz & Bolino, 2022; Zenger & Folkman, 2022). The argument is that employees are being asked to do more work to make up for employees who have left the organization, and the employees who remain and are not being compensated accordingly. Further, busy leaders do not have time to manage, yielding problems of inadequate communication, lack of supervisory support, and low accountability. Zenger and Folkman (2022) examined 13,000 ratings of over 2,800 managers. The managers who rated the lowest on “balancing getting results with a concern for others’ needs” had the highest percentage of quiet quitting and unwillingness to put in extra effort. Gallup has shown that engagement among workers younger than 35 dropped by 6 percentage points between 2019 and 2022, and they report fewer workers younger than 35 think that their company cares about them or encourages their development (Harter, 2022).

2. Expanded job opportunities because of the labor shortage. Another explanation is that the phenomenon is economic in nature. Quiet quitting is an outcome of a tight labor market and increased motivation to job switch (Ito, 2022; Rosalsky & Selyukh, 2022; Thompson, 2022). Employees know that they can find a new job at any time, so why put in extra effort?

3. Pandemic-related effects. Another perspective is that quiet quitting is a reaction to the pandemic. More specifically, an employee’s choice to do less may be a response to burnout during the pandemic (Stanhope & Weinstein, 2021). The pandemic also changed the ways that many employees work; it brought flexible work hours and the opportunity to work from home. These changes may have sensitized employees to the value of personal time and autonomy. As Rosalsky and Selyukh (2022) describe it, quiet quitting is a sign of the postpandemic zeitgeist. 

4. Generational shift. Some researchers describe quiet quitting as a modern phenomenon that reflects a reduction in the work ethic of young people (Moscrop, 2022). More generous critics suggest that quiet quitting is due to a generation that places greater emphasis on work–life balance and mental health than previous generations (Harter, 2022; Ellis & Yang, 2022). This argument is that Generation Z employees, born between 1997 and 2012, and Millennial employees, born between 1981 and 1996, have shifted in terms of attitudes, behaviors, and values when compared with Gen X workers, born between 1965 and 1980 (Dimock, 2019). Younger workers are more aware of and advocate for mental health, work–life balance, and healthy work culture from employers. Respondents to a survey of over 30,000 Gen Z employees at 350 American companies reported lower levels of meaning in their work compared to previous generations, and a lower percentage of Gen Z workers felt their employers provide psychologically and emotionally healthy workplaces compared with Millennial or Gen X workers (Simms, 2021). In addition, Gallup found that Gen Z and Millennial workers reported large drops in engagement, as well as perception of care from their employer, and opportunities for development between 2019 and 2022 (Harter, 2022).

5. Pushback against injustice and exploitation. Quiet quitting has also been described as a retaliation tactic against uncompensated labor and the expectation to work above and beyond prescribed job duties (Moscrop, 2022). In other words, quiet quitting is about rejecting exploitation. The argument is that companies are failing to acknowledge and respond to changes like larger pay inequity and higher housing costs. Workers in recent decades have seen productivity rise, but wages haven’t risen at similar rates (Economic Policy Institute, 2022). Klotz and Bolino (2022) discussed discretionary effort in terms of balance: Company leaders assume that the benefits and career success they provide balance the costs to the employee. They posit that quiet quitting stems from an imbalance in these expectations: Workers feel the companies do not, in fact, provide sufficient investment in them to balance out the work demands. Similarly, Stanhope and Weinstein (2021) described the increase in effort–reward imbalance (ERI) during the pandemic as a result of a constantly changing employment experience, increased workload, and a reduction of promotion and bonus opportunities.

Need for a Definition

In order to study quiet quitting, researchers first need a clear definition of the phenomenon. At this point, there seems to be as many definitions as there are people writing about the topic. Even though most definitions of quiet quitting involve “doing the minimum,” it is not clear whether authors are talking about extra-role or in-role behavior. For instance, the definition we provided of quiet quitting would certainly include cutting back on organizational citizenship, prosocial, or contextual behaviors (Motowidlo & Van Scotter, 1994; Pickford & Joy, 2016). However, quiet quitting could also involve withholding effort when performing one’s required job duties. In other words, based on the popular and limited scholarly work on the topic thus far, the quiet quitter might simply be performing their job at the minimal amount/quality of work that is necessary to stay employed, or they could be performing less than these minimum standards. This leaves us to wonder: Is quiet quitting just another name for psychological withdrawal (Lehman & Simpson, 1992)? Psychological detachment (Sonnentag et al., 2010)? Employee disengagement (Harter, 2022)? Low affective commitment (Meyer & Allen, 1991)? Failure to thrive (Britt & Jex, 2015)? Is quiet quitting a form of presenteeism, another popular but insufficiently defined term (Johns, 2010)? Is quiet quitting an attitude or a pattern of behavior? Furthermore, we need to gain clarity to understand if quiet quitting is attitudinal or behavioral, and whether the focus should be on the individual, environment, or both.

It’s exciting when the media focuses attention on a topic relevant to our field. And with all that media attention, quiet quitting is increasingly difficult to ignore. Perhaps it will fade out with other social media trends, but if reports of quiet quitting stay in the limelight, researchers and practitioners would be wise to create a clear definition of the construct to assess its extent and determine its relationship to organizational practices and outcomes.


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