Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
If you read any think pieces on cultural and economic trends, you’ve probably seen “quiet quitting” getting a lot of attention recently. Employees, we’re told, are—gasp!—no longer going above and beyond at work and instead are just doing the basics required in their job descriptions. This is apparently so outrageous that it’s been labeled “quitting” when in fact these workers aren’t leaving their jobs; they’re simply establishing healthier work-life boundaries.
This terribly named trend mirrors a larger change in people’s relationship to work. The pandemic, the lackluster response to it from many employers, the move to more remote work (after employers told workers for years that remote work would be impossible to accommodate), and the employee-friendly job market have all caused many people to rethink the role they want work to play in their lives, as well as what they’re willing to give of themselves and what is reasonable for employers to expect of them. Increasingly, workers are concluding that they’ve gone above and beyond for a long time—dealing with inadequate staffing, low pay, unreasonable demands on their time, and embarrassingly meager workplace protections—in return for very little. No wonder they’re less emotionally invested.
If anything, a lot of workers are disgusted with the idea that they should do more than “quietly quit.” Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been hearing in my inbox:
• “I used to check my email at night and weekends. I used to answer reference questions at night and on weekends. That’s never been part of my job. I did it because I was encouraged to do it by our administrators because ‘we’re supposed to care’ and I naïvely believed them. Well, years have gone by and I don’t get a bonus for doing this stuff. I don’t get more money. I put in for raises and am told, sorry no. I try to move up and am told no. So I’m done with that. When it’s business hours, I am doing my job and I am trying to do it well. But at night? On a Sunday? All the hell no.”
• “Why should I go out of my way to give ‘extra’ to my company? When was the last time the company went out of its way to give extra to the employees? We have a business arrangement; they pay me X salary in exchange for me completing Y tasks. If I throw in Z task, I’m lucky to even get a thank-you, so why not just stay in my own lane?”
• “I have been trying to enact better boundaries around what I will and won’t do at work because my industry is one of those where you can very easily get roped in to doing more and more with little reward. I’m not quitting my job nor am I slacking on it, but I’m trying to put it in its proper place where it gets a piece of my attention, but not all of it.”
• “I will work hard and do good work for what I’ve been hired to do. I just won’t volunteer or agree to do extra stuff you won’t pay me for. I made the mistake of taking on an extra project last spring that was more work than I’d been told, yet my raise didn’t reflect the extra work. So I’ve scaled back to just my actual job for my normal hours at my expected pay and that’s it. None of this is me quitting. It’s just me doing only my actual job and not providing additional labor to my employer that they aren’t compensating me for.”
• “Employers have enjoyed the benefits of not just underpaying people broadly (look at wages vs. productivity, and wages vs. cost of living), but getting free extra labor, usually with either the promise of a promotion/raise that never comes or with the threat of unemployment if the employee works to rule instead of working extra. God knows I fell for that scam when I was new to the working world, and it has never once paid off. I just now quit doing it, after nearly five years of taking on extra at a job for which I was already overqualified, only to pass an external interview for a job I’d done on top of my own for years, then hear from my own management that I would not be moved on to the next round. They like my work in that role just fine, but they’d prefer not to pay me for it and to keep getting my actual job duties covered for my current rate too. Nope, screw that, they had their shot and now I’m going to do as specified while I look for greener pastures. Life’s too short to waste my time and energy like this; I want to do good work that allows me to live a life in which I’m content. That’s it, that’s all, that’s not shameful or wrong or lazy—and I adamantly reject any suggestion that it is.”
• “My version of quiet quitting is staying in my own lane. I’m not flaking out, but I’m also not taking anything new on voluntarily, and I’m definitely not offering to go above and beyond for my boss. … I do my job and I do it well, but that’s all I do.”
• “In education, because there is a teacher shortage in particular, I’ve seen a lot of my fellow staff members do the quiet quit. My district is working without a contract and the big admins are saying ‘there’s no money’ when hiding $18–20 million and giving our superintendent a $400,000 contract. We are doing what we are paid for, we care about our kids, but no more grading or planning outside of school. If it’s not in my contractual day, I likely won’t work on it.”
• “I work my contracted hours. I check my email once a day, during contracted hours. I do my recordkeeping and write my bulletins in my contracted hours. I do not serve on committees. When I was a first-year teacher, our consultant for our accrediting body told me that I should be doing material making every Saturday and recordkeeping every Sunday. Yeah, I don’t do that anymore.”
• “I think for a lot of people, they’ve come to this mentality because they went above and beyond for years but realized what they gained didn’t outweigh what they sacrificed. A lot of companies and organizations have been banking on their employees going above and beyond with no incentives. Teachers go above and beyond and pay for supplies out of pocket. An executive assistant goes above and beyond for their boss and is rewarded with 2 percent raises, ‘prestige,’ and calls on vacation. A salesperson went above and beyond and spent late hours convincing clients, but missed the formative years of his children’s lives. And companies benefited from their employees desire to go out of their way to do good work. But they didn’t reward those employees in any real, worthwhile way.
The whole narrative of “quiet quitting”—that doing only the basics of your job and nothing more is somehow akin to resigning—is the kind of thinking that lets employers take advantage of employees in the first place. It’s not quitting to do your job without burning yourself out or to decline to take on extra work without compensation. If a company’s business model requires its employees to go above and beyond, the problem isn’t the employees; it’s the business model.
It remains to be seen whether a change in the job market will alter these workers’ stances; employers, no doubt, are counting on regaining the upper hand at some point. But it sure does feel like a fundamental shift in our relationship to work has taken place, and for now, that’s a really good thing for workers.