By Fiona Doyle, Senior Vice President – Talent Management

When a TikTok video on "quiet quitting" starts trending, worried conversations in HR and talent acquisition are never far behind. This new term may be catchy. But look behind the words, and the concept itself – its causes and maybe even its cure – are more familiar.

Employees making choices about the time and effort they devote to work is not new. For many, though, the pandemic made these choices more urgent and challenging. People began to reevaluate how and why they work. Purpose, job satisfaction and burnout were already in the spotlight. COVID-19 has given these old issues new emphasis.

Here, we shine a light on what quiet quitting is, how to recognize it, how to address it, and how to preempt it.

Quiet quitting: Genuine grievance or employee blame game?

"Quiet quitting" has as many definitions as there are thought leaders, commentators and social influencers writing about it. In essence though, it describes the moment an individual realizes they are no longer willing to contribute the discretionary effort their employer has come to expect.

More important than pinpointing a definition is clarity on its causes. What brings someone to the point of saying "no more" and setting new boundaries to the effort they once felt compelled to give? The answers are varied, nuanced and unique to individuals. "No more" may be an indicator of major dissatisfaction or simply a cry for better balance. One thing is certain: none of them should be ignored or dismissed as the employee’s problem.

Giving the causes of quiet quitting serious attention creates an opportunity. Listening can lead us to reconsider what companies need to do to earn the trust and commitment of their talent.

Learn to recognize when (and why) employees are quietly quitting

Spotting the symptoms of quiet quitting and identifying their cause are key to addressing and preempting disengagement.

According to recent Gallup research, already-high experiences of stress, worry, and sadness ticked up in 2022, reaching new records (2022 Global Emotions Report). Burnout – the exhaustion caused by those emotions – is often triggered by a feeling you are unable to keep up with demands.

A recent global survey found that almost half of respondents (45 percent) have thought about leaving their current company. 30 percent have actively searched for a new job in the past six months (Society for Human Resource Management). Employee satisfaction can ebb and flow. This lack of interest or enthusiasm for work – demotivation – drives people’s desire or intent to quit.

Feeling your personal or professional values do not align with your employer’s creates a sense of being "out of place," or misaligned. It causes employees to question their fit in their position, team and company. Life events such as starting a family or a spouse getting a promotion can cause them to reevaluate the role work itself plays in their lives.

How to preempt quiet quitting

Surely the complex and nuanced factors driving quiet quitting mean successfully preempting it is equally complex? Not so. The antidote to the quiet quit uses the same tools and techniques leaders have long relied on to decrease dissatisfaction and boost engagement. They are equally effective in strategies to retain employees and remove risk from the candidate process.

Sharing a common purpose

A sense of purpose is important to us all. The better your employees understand what you're working toward and why, the better equipped they are to find meaning – and motivation – in their work. Transparency is at the heart of building this type of alignment. Overcommunicate your cause. Proclaim your mission. Broadcast your values.

Your vision, mission and values help secure like-minded candidates too. They should be front and center in your employee value proposition and translate into a candidate’s onboarding experience. Create space and time to build that sense of connection with coffee talks and informal sessions. Don’t always be on transmit. Create joint committees and engagement surveys where new joiners can feel they are active contributors to your purpose.

Right people, right roles

What employers think of as performance, employees think of as achievement. Being sure you have the right people in the right roles is important for performance. For employees’ own sense of achievement, you need to agree how their direct and intangible contributions are measured. What does the role demand? Distinguish between your must-haves and nice-to-haves. Dialogue and flexibility go a long way to employees feeling they fit: in the role, in your company.

At the candidate stage, failing to accurately assess job fit is setting the stage for a quiet quit. Beyond your checklist of skills, strengths and traits, it’s crucial to ask the questions that reveal a candidate’s own expectations of the role.

  • What sort of environment do you need to thrive?
  • What do you look for in a leader's style?
  • What is important to you in your new role?

The answers to these questions will give you valuable insights into a candidates' fit with a role, the team, and your culture.

Clarity on expectations

Making sure employees understand the expectations of their role is Management 101. Allow them a voice in assessing how reasonable those expectations are, and you move beyond the basics of leadership.

It is important to distinguish between genuine employee burnout and a simple unwillingness to go above and beyond. Be clear which is which. Open a dialogue with talent suffering under excessive workloads. Top talent will often continue to contribute if they feel they are heard, valued and supported. Together, you can explore the boundaries that will help them reestablish a healthy work-life balance.

For candidates, each stage of the recruitment process is an opportunity to be clear about tasks and responsibilities. To meet with future co-workers. To discuss and agree measures of success. To articulate culture. Those conversations are a chance to address flexibility within your framework and set clear expectations that carry through from day one.

Time to reset

"Quiet quitting" seemingly raged out of nowhere. It has left leaders asking "How did we get here?" and "How do we fix this?" The answers are in the causes, not symptoms, and demand some meaningful reflection on how we have ended up here.

Increasing competition over the last few decades has driven organizations to demand more from employees. Added discretionary effort has become the norm. The bar is raised each year. But is it reasonable? Is it even healthy? Quiet quitting is proof it can be self-defeating. It is certainly unsustainable.

Companies need to reset their expectations. To be more understanding and realistic. Leaders must learn to heed the signs of quiet quitting and work with their employees to rediscover a sense of balance. And above all, they must acknowledge that a renewed, genuine and individual focus on well-being is what will unlock a successful future for both employees and their organizations.

Fiona Doyle

Connect with Fiona on LinkedIn.