This blog aims to say the quiet parts out loud regarding these issues for how to identify and avoid such pitfalls in employee engagement, productivity and legal concerns.
There have been several recent news and opinion articles on the topic of “quiet quitting” as of late. This is the concept where an employee merely meets the very basics of his or her job description at work. According to a September 6, 2022 post on Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, “quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce – probably more.” Gallup explains that the overall decline in work engagement has to do with the “clarity of expectations, opportunities to learn and grow, feeling cared about, and a connection to the organization’s mission or purpose.” These issues are more prevalent in Millennial and Generation Z workers, which Gallop says is a notable change from the pre-COVID-19 health emergency.
Labor secretary weighs in on subject
On September 2, 2022, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh weighed in on quiet quitting during a Yahoo Finance Live interview. The former Boston mayor said he “would address it as an employer” by going “over to talk to [the employees] and find out what the issue is, what the situations are, and have those conversations.” Walsh added that managers “should catch on early enough” that their “employees are not satisfied” and deal with the situation “between management, the company, and the worker.”
Businesses pay the price
Avoiding having such conversations about low employee engagement can end up costing a business a lot of money each year in lost productivity, among other reasons. Gallup’s State of the Workplace: 2022 Report stated that low engagement from employees at the workplace costs the global economy $7.8 trillion.
Quiet firing is a thing too
If the quiet quitting phenomenon was not bad enough new for the workforce at large, there have also been a number of news and opinion articles circulating about “quiet firing.” This is a process where an employer intentionally treats its workers poorly in an effort to get them to quit their employment so the business avoids directly terminating the employees. Unfortunately, this is not the most unusual business practice. According to a LinkedIn poll, more than 80% of respondents said they have either faced it personally or have seen it before in their workplace.
A garden variety of quiet firing might be the refusal to give an employee a raise for several years or passing over an employee for a promotion. These actions are also classified as a constructive discharge, which Thomson Reuters Practical Law defines as when an employee resigns due to intolerable working conditions. Constructive discharge may also be found in breach of contract cases when challenging the terms of an employment agreement. The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed this topic in limited cases, which may also subject may also be found under state and local laws.
In Green v. Brennan, S.C., Dkt. No. 14-613, 05/23/2016, the U.S. Supreme Court says that a constructive discharge claim is comprised of the following two elements: (1) conduct by the employer that would have compelled a reasonable employee to resign and (2) actual resignation. The highest court in the United States clarified that employees do not need to prove the employer caused resignation, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth and Second Circuits have continued to apply the employer intent standard. Others have discarded the requirement, leading to a continued split in the courts.
How to identify quiet quitting and firing
When it comes to quiet quitting, as suggested by Labor Secretary Walsh in his Yahoo Finance interview, employers and managers “should catch on early enough” regarding employee satisfaction. Some ways a manager may pick up on symptoms of quiet quitting include: attendance, productivity, enthusiasm, participation, and engagement. This may translate to an employee missing meetings or arriving late and leaving early to work or contributing less to team projects. There may be a number of reasons for these behaviors, but an employer will not understand what those reasons may be if they do not take note and then engage. The employee may be burned out, not feel like they are on the right career path, or even be suffering from personal issues.
Likewise, quiet firing has some noticeable signs that employees want to keep in mind. These may include: being assigned the most unappealing tasks on a regular basis, continuously adding to the workload where it becomes clearly unmanageable, a lack of communication regarding department and company topics, a change in job title, or stifling career growth. Perhaps an employee is given a number of new tasks at work on top of a challenging workload, is being kept in the dark regarding company-wide business changes or is discouraged or ignored when attempting to engage about career advancement.
In both cases, these actions ultimately hurt the business in productivity and possible legal issues. It makes the company less appealing to work at for employees and reduces the chances of success for the business overall, in addition to costing the employer in loss of productivity.
Avoiding quiet quitting and firing at the workplace
There are a number of things a business can do to help avoid quiet quitting, which will save the business money by taking steps to ensure its workforce is engaged and satisfied with the company’s product, operations and culture. One of the most important actions is a manager’s engagement with direct reports. Managers tend to have a lot on their plate, but taking the time out to have a one-on-one with each team member once a month (or more if time permits) keeps the manager aware of an employee’s current life situation, strengths, goals, areas where they are struggling, etc.
An employee may be caring for a sick loved one, which can take a physical and mental toll, and affect their productivity. Being aware of this can help a manager provide temporary, additional assistance so the employee is supported while going through a difficult time personally.
Professionally, having a check-in lets a manager know the team member is striving for more and wants to be challenged. Or, the employee could be struggling with a specific aspect of a project. This knowledge helps a manager know what action should be taken to help the employee, the team and the company.
Managers should have accountability for individual performance, the collaboration within the team, the value of the business’s customers, and communicate the company’s culture. A finding from Gallup’s 2022 State of the Workplace report notes that employee wellbeing is the new workplace imperative, explaining that “wellbeing and engagement at the workplace interact with each other in powerful ways.” The report says that “how people experience work influences their lives outside work and overall wellbeing influences life at work.”
Back in March of this year, a Pew Research Center poll showed that most workers who quit a job in 2021 said that low pay, no opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected were at the top of the list of why many U.S. workers quit their jobs. The result is an employee quitting, but as the definition of quiet firing explains, the actions, or lack of actions, by the employer may ultimately be the result of the employee leaving the job to pursue opportunities elsewhere. From the point of view of an employee who thinks they are being quietly fired, as with quiet quitting, the first place to start is communication by engaging with management to advocate for the value and work that the employee believes is being overlooked. The issue may not have been intentional on management’s side and may be resolved. At the same time, some of the above tips regarding quiet quitting can also be applied for quiet firing.
When asked, Labor Secretary Walsh said “…if [quiet quitting] happened here at the Department of Labor and I heard there was quiet quitting going on at a particular agency, I would go down and talk to them and say, listen, what’s the deal, and try and find out, identify what the problem is.” He added, “Do they have a problem with the boss? Do they have a problem with the work? What’s going on?”
Both quiet quitting and firing cost businesses money
Ultimately, both practices end up costing a business money. Best to make sure managers understand how to effectively communicate with their team to fully understand their professional and personal concerns. It is also a good idea to make sure employees know they have to their managers to talk about personal problems that are affecting their performance or professional aspirations and focus on developing a roadmap to reach their goals.