Want to Avoid Quiet Quitting? Employee Engagement is Key

Recently, the term “quiet quitting” has become a point of discussion across the business world, as workers everywhere embrace the idea of “acting their wage” — doing only as much as their job requires. 

It’s mind-boggling to think that before the pandemic, if a manager told a team member they were “coasting,” that person would have likely been embarrassed. Today, it’s considered relatable, understandable — even celebrated. 

Relatable? Yes. Good for business? No. That’s because quiet quitting drains creativity from an organization and diminishes the performance of its employees. Let’s take a deep dive into what quiet quitting is, how to recognize it, what leaders can do to address it, and tips for building an engaged workforce. 

What is Quiet Quitting?

Quiet quitting is actually nothing new. It’s the latest re-branding of an age-old problem, often called employee disengagement. 

Here’s TikToker @zaidlepplin’s viral video on the topic:

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound – ruby

As early as 1958, management guru Peter Drucker identified the need to create engagement in the workforce. He put forth the idea that managers must cultivate “responsible workers” who contribute meaningfully to the business by achieving the tasks required of them with interest and passion. 

Pre-pandemic, it was the norm for workers to exceed their job description — to prove themselves — in the pursuit of promotions and rewards. In the face of pandemic burnout, inflation, a climate crisis and political unrest, some employees may be deciding that they’d rather work to live, not live to work.

A major concern about this latest iteration of disengagement is that employees are no longer sheepish about owning up to their lack of interest — instead, they’re discussing it openly, even bragging about their quiet quitting.

Employee Engagement is Steadily Trending Down

While disengagement numbers have increased recently, historically they’ve always been problematic — fluctuating between 18–21% over the years. What we haven’t seen until now is the steady decrease of engaged employees. 

Before the pandemic, U.S. employee engagement was at an all-time high, with the ratio of engaged-to-disengaged employees measuring 2.7:1. That ratio has steadily declined to 1.8:1 by the second quarter of 2022 — the lowest in a decade. 

As disengagement numbers climb, engaged employees have to make up for their quiet-quitting colleagues, causing organizations to lose their effectiveness. As a result, it becomes more difficult for businesses to achieve their goals. 

Why are People Quiet Quitting?

Unprecedented events mean businesses have to adapt more quickly. Recently, we’ve had our fair share. 

On the Macro Level:

  • The possibility of a recession is already causing businesses to start acting conservatively by pausing their hiring plans, or worse, laying people off. 
  • A candidate-driven labor market has made the competition for top talent tougher than ever. Talented candidates can take their pick of open roles, making it more important for companies to focus on retaining talent. 
  • Many people find it harder to connect with their work while macro problems like global climate change, natural disasters, social injustice, political turmoil, and war eclipse their day-to-day lives.

These forces have led to major shifts in how people view work and what they prioritize in their lives, resulting in several micro-level trends.

On the Micro Level:

  • Remote work has become normalized and its success has deeply changed how people view work-life balance. As a result, employees are looking for greater agency over where, when, and how they work. 
  • After the COVID-19 pandemic, employees started placing more value on their physical and mental health and the safety of their families. As a result, workplace culture has become even more critical for attracting and retaining people. 
  • In this candidate-driven market, it’s imperative for businesses to have an employer branding strategy that defines their reputation as an employer, recruitment marketing activities, and employee advocacy programs. 
  • Being aware of macro trends can cause employees to feel misaligned with the larger purpose of their organization and disconnected from its mission. 

Notice the Signs of Quiet Quitting

As cognitive scientist Art Markman puts it, “Quiet quitting is a form of interaction that is characteristic of strangers. When there is a low level of trust between the organization and the employee, it makes sense that employees will do only the minimal amount of work required to keep their job. An organization that has no deeper mission will lead their employees to do the minimum.” 

While this quiet quitting “minimum” looks different for everyone, managers can keep an eye out for certain kinds of disengaged behavior:

1. Lack of participation and enthusiasm at work

Managers may notice that someone on their team is speaking up less frequently than before. They show less interest, ask fewer questions, seek less input, and may even be less receptive to feedback. Disengaged employees try to fly under the radar and stick to their exact job description, only doing what’s asked of them. This behavior may be most identifiable during in-person or video call meetings.

2. Lack of meaningful contribution

Quiet quitters don’t bring additional insight, ideas, or innovation to their daily work. Disengaged employees are not seeking opportunities for continuous improvement and certainly won’t raise awareness if they find them. They’re not looking to make a difference. 

3. Not working well with engaged team members

Nothing throws the contrast between engaged and disengaged employees into sharper relief than having them work on a project together. In the worst-case scenario, there will be direct conflict. Alternatively, the engaged employees may simply try to solve the problem by taking on more work. In either case, disengaged employees take a toll on teamwork and morale. 

4. Poor performance

The effects of a disengaged employee’s performance can range from negligible to disastrous. For example, having a disengaged employee in a customer-service role could lead to mismanaging customers and directly impact the bottom line. 

Also, employees who interact with customers on a daily basis are typically the first to encounter problems and see inefficiencies and potential shifts in the market. If these customer-facing employees are disengaged, businesses miss important opportunities. 

How Should Recruiters, Managers, and HR Respond to Quiet Quitting?

Both Kim Kardashian and ex-CEO of Whole Foods John Mackey have recently received backlash for saying that people don’t want to work anymore.

But in their comments, both fail to recognize that many people have gone through a great deal over the past few years and no longer want to give their time to work on a superficial level. 

It’s important for recruiters, managers, and HR leaders to realize that quiet quitting has always existed. What’s different this time is that employees are proud of their disengagement as a way to “stick it to the man,” or simply no longer expect joy and satisfaction at work. 

More importantly, it’s 100% a managerial problem. Companies need to train managers to better handle employee disengagement, starting with expressing empathy. They should realize that quiet quitting occurs when employees experience a disconnect between their personal purpose and the larger meaning behind their work. 

This gives businesses a couple of options for countering quiet quitting. 

Pay Employees More to Do More 

Money can be a great motivator. Big tech has used this strategy for a long time: it pays higher salaries than other businesses and has even increased salaries by as much as 20% in the past two years, and up to 30% in highly competitive markets. 

While money might be highly effective for attracting and retaining talent, higher compensation by no means guarantees an engaged workforce. An outsized salary might attract more applicants, but it won’t solve the problem long term. 

Create Real Employee Engagement 

To get at the heart of quiet quitting, you need to increase employee engagement.  People don’t connect with work the way they used to — that’s the real problem. Feeling connected to your work is a major factor in increasing engagement. There are multiple studies that show that employee satisfaction directly drives business results. 

The onus falls on leaders to build stronger connections and engagement with their employees. When employees ask themselves, “Why should I continue to give my best here?” it is the responsibility of leadership to provide a compelling answer.

As Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran puts it: 

@barbara.corcoran #QuietQuitting ♬ original sound – Barbara Corcoran

Tips for Building an Engaged Workforce

Here are some ways business leaders can improve employee engagement:

  1. Praise and reward engaged employees who are performing well and helping others. 
  2. Be clear about what your organization stands for and hire like-minded people who believe in your company’s vision. 
  3. Set up a good foundation during the employee onboarding process. It’s your first opportunity to get across what your business does and how new employees can contribute to it with their work. 
  4. Make sure employees have everything they need to perform their job well. 
  5. Offer employees training and education to further their skills on the job. 
  6. Train managers to identify disengagement and how to bring employees back into the fold. 
  7. Gain and apply employee feedback. Regularly survey them to keep a pulse on organizational engagement. 
  8. Engagement begets engagement. Build team rapport by having in-person or digital events that encourage employees to build better working relationships. 
  9. Build community at work by getting employees involved in projects that give back or serve others. 

Every business has a deeper purpose for its workers to connect with — one that goes beyond mere compensation and benefits. At their core, employees want to know that the work they’re doing is going towards a purpose that they care about. It’s time for companies to go “above and beyond” to build purpose-based engagement with existing and potential employees.