A quiet place too? How to deal with employees who are quitting in place

Author: James P. Reidy

While COVID-19 is still with us in one form or another, the effect (at least for now) is far less severe than before. As a result, pandemic-related subsidies and assistance from the government have ended and many employers are trying to get remote and hybrid employees back into the workplace. Still, some employees have resisted the call to return to the office, and others who return have a new approach to work: They are not working as hard as before. This phenomenon is referred to as “quitting in place” or “quiet quitting.” Read on for some strategies to address this new reality.

COVID-19 and the workplace

COVID-19 affected the traditional workplace in many ways. First, there were stay-at-home orders. Next, came furloughs. Then, came waves of infections and illness. The responses from government and employers included, not in any particular order, screening protocols, vaccine policies, insurance subsidies, paid leave, augmented unemployment benefits, and work from home accommodations.

Before there was a vaccine, some employees said they wouldn’t return to work until there was a vaccine. Once it was available, some employees resisted the shot because it was so new, and others sought medical or religious exemptions. Still, other employees found they preferred to work from home because of childcare issues, concerns about safety, they felt more productive, or they simply discovered a work-life balance that had eluded them before the pandemic.

What is quiet quitting?

One new issue employers are grappling with is quiet quitting. These employees still show up to work and perform their jobs, so the “quitting” is subtle. Quiet quitters simply do what they need to do and nothing more. One employer recently described it as a student settling for a C or even a D grade, or an athlete focusing on finishing the race instead of winning.

So why not just quit? There are plenty of other jobs out there. Unemployment is 3.5% nationally, and in New Hampshire, it’s as low as 2.3%. While inflation has chipped away at wages, they are still higher than before because many employers are desperate to fill vacant positions.

Why not just quit?

Again, why not actually quit rather than quit in place? It could be because these employees still like their jobs but not enough to go the extra mile. It could also be because they don’t want to try to fit into another workplace with another group of coworkers.

A recent Gallup poll shows employee engagement is declining. In addition, a recent Wall Street Journal article found that “every generation enters the workforce and quickly realizes that having a job isn’t all fun and games.”

COVID-19 caused many employees, both young and old, to reexamine their priorities. Over the last two years, many Baby Boomers opted for retirement instead of dealing with the challenges of coming into work, masking, daily screenings, vaccine mandates, and navigating remote technology challenges.

This may have been the first wave of the “Great Resignation.” Other waves followed as employees resisted calls to return to work or simply decided to pursue other work opportunities. Still, others opted to downshift. While not exclusive to Gen Z, most quiet quitters appear to be in that demographic. The Wall Street Journal article interviewed several people in Gen Z, and there was a common thread among the group. The article said, “these 20-somethings joined the working world during the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of its dislocating effects, including blurred boundaries between work and life. Many workers say they feel they have power to push back in the current strong labor market.”

This isn’t an indictment of younger workers or another version of “Well, in my day…” or “Young people today…” As the Gallup poll found across generations, employee engagement is falling. That said, the survey still found Gen Z and younger millennials, born in 1989 and after, reported the lowest engagement of all during the first quarter. That demographic of the workforce is obviously not able to retire. Again, many in that generation (as well as their older colleagues) may not be interested in joining another workplace, adjusting to a new job, and getting to know a new group of coworkers.

Instead, they have simply chosen to work at a pace of their choosing and not overextend themselves. Perhaps this is a short-term reaction to the wide-spread disruption of COVID-19, or maybe it’s a larger reshaping of the concept of work. Either way, employers need to identify and address this new approach to work.

How to address quiet quitting

Quiet quitting is a somewhat misleading concept. First, these employees are still working. Secondly, they aren’t standing on their desks in protest, like Sally Field’s character in Norma Rae (forgive the dated reference) or engaging in the radical bad acts plotted by frustrated employees in the movie Horrible Bosses.

These employees are more like the lead character in Office Space (a 1999 movie that came out before many Gen Z folks were born): Someone who does just enough to get his work done and nothing more. But what if you have several employees who no longer put in the extra time or effort? How should employers address these issues? Here are a few suggestions for employers to consider:

  • Survey your workplace. Because you may not initially notice employee dissatisfaction, you should consider conducting a survey to take the temperature of the workplace and identify issues that may have caused employees to slow their roll. They may comment on working conditions, wages, benefits, or time off. To ensure candor, you should make responses anonymous.
  • Be careful not to react too quickly. Let the responses settle in. Think carefully about how you will respond. You want to avoid knee-jerk reactions, especially if the employees complain about workplace safety conditions, wages, or benefits, as these issues are protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Sure, workplace hazards or other serious matters should be promptly addressed. But when you have workplace malaise, it needs to be handled in a measured and positive way to retain good employees and hopefully motivate them to engage more.
  • Review production and productivity statistics. Another way to get a sense of slowed performance is to review actual performance numbers, generally and specifically, when compared to annual and quarterly goals. This could identify departments, groups, or individuals that may need attention.
  • Look at overtime expenses. An indication of disengagement could be a decline in employees who are willing to work overtime. If employees aren’t raising their hands and agreeing to needed overtime work, you may have a problem.
  • Watch for signs of obvious malaise. I’m not talking about employees sleeping on the job, but that could certainly be a sign of lack of engagement. Other signs of malaise could include a decrease in employee participation in team building, meetings, and group activities. Unusual attendance and tardiness problems could also be a sign of an unplugged employee.
  • Incentivize and reward initiative. Money isn’t always a motivator, but it can help jump start an employee who has been stuck in neutral. This can come in the form of a raise or bonus. Other motivators can include stock options, more paid time off, or permitting fully remote or hybrid work arrangements in exchange for increased performance. These bonuses should be earned or warranted. Simply throwing them at a problem employee could cause other hardworking colleagues to become resentful.
  • Understand that 24/7, 365 isn’t realistic. All employees need down time and space to recharge. There are some jobs that require on-call time and extended work hours, but even firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, and EMTs get time off. After hours texts, calls, or emails from supervisors shouldn’t be routine. Of course, off-the-clock communication may be necessary from time to time. If employees think communication could have waited until business hours, however, they will become disgruntled because their time off was interrupted.
  • Recruit new and motivated talent. Sometimes a new recruit can motivate others to step up their game. Like a rookie quarterback who wants to take the starting role from a veteran, you should look for new employees who have the interest and desire to perform at a higher level.
  • Make sure managers and supervisors give fair and accurate performance assessments. You can’t properly address lack-luster performance if managers and supervisors don’t provide accurate performance assessments. While overly critical assessments can cause an employee to give up, an unrealistically positive performance can cause an employee to coast. It can also affect the morale of coworkers who see a slacker getting an undeserved boost.
  • We are colleagues, not family. You can of course be friendly with coworkers, and managers can organize social events during and after business hours from time to time, but employees need time with their families, friends, or just time alone. Employers need to respect that space and separation.
  • Implement and enforce performance improvement plans. When necessary, employers shouldn’t be reluctant to develop an individualized performance improvement plan for underperforming employees. Hopefully, this will help both parties identify areas where the employee needs to improve. The plan should be monitored and enforced, and if performance improves, everyone will benefit. If performance doesn’t improve, however, the employer must be prepared.
  • When necessary, don’t be afraid to discipline, demote or discharge. No employer hires an employee with the intent of terminating that relationship, but there are instances when this is necessary. If a new employee or even a seasoned veteran won’t perform the job as required, you may need to act. If you decide you must fire an employee, it’s important to avoid the risk of a discrimination or other workplace claim by having performance reviews and conduct issues available.
  • Keep your ear to the ground and eyes on the horizon. Workplaces of all types evolve in response to changes in the culture and marketplace. To survive (and hopefully thrive) in the weeks, months, and years ahead, employers need to be aware of issues that may cause employees to disengage. Like COVID-19, disengagement can be highly contagious. While staying current with workplace trends and forward thinking can help organizations stay vibrant and relevant, employers must also understand the undercurrents that can cause even the best organizations to stall.

Bottom line

The reality is that we’re all still recovering from the many challenges COVID-19 presented. It’s possible we’ll never go back to the ways of a pre-pandemic workplace. That said, employers shouldn’t settle for “good enough” performances when they need more from employees.

An HR director recently discussed the key to dealing with quiet quitters: “To find the sweet spot, employers need to better identify their workplace mission and goals, to communicate that to employees, to provide more opportunities for buy in and incentives for growth, and at the same time, recognize many people may choose to no longer be slaves to their jobs.”

Time will tell if quiet quitting is part of a COVID-19 hangover or if it’s the leading edge of the workplace of tomorrow. Either way, employers need to retain talent and decide the level of performance that is acceptable.

Jim Reidy is a shareholder at the Sheehan Phinney and chair of its labor and employment law practice group. Jim practices in the areas of management side labor and employment law with an emphasis on assisting employers in effectively avoiding, or defending against, employment disputes. He may be contacted at jreidy@sheehan.com.