Nevermind the buzzwords: What quiet quitting really means
Interviews / Opinions

Nevermind the buzzwords: What quiet quitting really means

, Former Content Marketing Manager

If your ears are ringing with the phrase “quiet quitting”, you’re not alone. Wherever you look online, from LinkedIn to TikTok, Forbes to BuzzFeed, it’s there, shouting out at you. Loudly. For a concept that advocates the power of silent protest, it’s making a LOT OF NOISE.

It may be a buzzword, but quiet quitting has gone viral for a reason. It’s an indicator of something. The problem is, there’s so much noise going on, no one’s really listening to what that something really is.

Quiet quitting isn’t actually about quitting. It’s not really about being quiet, either. So, what’s the real message here? And what does it mean for employers and HR professionals?

If you’re looking for answers, we’re with you. Time to dig deeper.

In other words: Why quiet quitting isn’t new

The phrase “quiet quitting” entered our collective vocabulary earlier this year when TikTokker, Zaiad Khan, posted a video encouraging employees to stop going the extra mile for their employers. The 17-second video began with the words: “I recently learned about this term called quiet quitting.” And, using the hashtag ‘quietquitting’, within seconds, other TikTok users began sharing their own thoughts and experiences on the subject.

But as Khan indicates, the phrase “quiet quitting” isn’t new. The exact origins are hard to pin down. But it’s said to go back as far back as 2009 when it was used at an economics symposium to describe a general malaise among workers in Venezuela.

There are other derivatives of the term in evidence too. The phrase “work-to-rule” springs to mind. Spearheaded by Labor Unions, the phrase describes a form of industrial action where workers perform only the duties described in their contract. Tang ping or “lying flat” is another example. A lifestyle and social protest movement, tang ping resonated with a generation of workers in China last year, exhausted by the pressures of overwork. Informally too, phrases such as “coasting,” “setting healthy boundaries,” “putting your foot down,” and “drawing a line” would have been used by previous generations to describe the sentiment.

The ethos behind the phrase isn’t new either. Representing disengagement, burnout, and a need for self-preservation, the behaviors quiet quitting describes aren’t unique. To a greater or lesser extent, there have always been people who have rebelled against an “all or nothing” workplace culture. And there have always been different terms used to describe the sentiment.

The difference is, until now, sentiment hasn’t resonated quite so powerfully with quite so many. So why has the phrase “quiet quitting” created such a buzz?

Nevermind the buzzwords: What quiet quitting really means

You say “quiet quitting”, I say…

Admittedly, timing’s got a lot to do with the unprecedented response to the “quiet quitting” movement. (For ease, let’s call it an example of a post-pandemic zeitgeist). But the wording itself has a lot to answer for. Like the Great Resignation and the Great Regret, “quiet quitting” is a headline writer or industry pundit’s dream. Short, catchy, easy to remember, with alliteration to boot, what’s not to like? For the same reasons, it’s perfect for social networks. Instantly hash-taggable, there’s an element of ambiguity and mystery surrounding the phrase that influencers and other social networkers are drawn to.

The truth of the matter is, though, that the phrase doesn’t work. It’s misleading, inaccurate, sensationalist, and actually quite damaging. Let’s break it down.

To be clear, quiet quitting isn’t actually about workers quitting at all. Use the phrase quitting in the context of a workplace environment, and the assumption is it’s about someone leaving their job. Not true in this case.

OK. Point taken. But it is about someone “quitting” their responsibilities, right? Wrong. Quitting their responsibilities implies someone slacking off. Again, that’s not what’s happening here.

Er. So it’s about attitude, then? Nope. This isn’t about an employee “zoning out”.

However you look at it, the word “quitting” has negative connotations, which all reflect back on the employee. It implies that workers are to blame for a culture of disengagement. That they’re “punishing” their employer by not giving their best self. Or even that they’re “punishing” themselves by doing the bare minimum and neglecting their own personal development. The use of the adjective “quiet” also implies it’s something they’re ashamed of doing. Or that they’re afraid to speak out.

In truth, the opposite is actually the case.

The concept behind quiet quitting is actually a positive one. It’s about employees recognizing that there’s a problem, taking control, setting boundaries, prioritizing wellbeing, and challenging unfairness. Oh, and, still continuing to do a good job too.

The responsibility here lies squarely with employers who, it seems, are “quitting” employees. Of the 50% of the US workforce who describe themselves as “quiet quitters” most say they’re only there because of bad management and a poor workplace environment. In fact, in a workplace study, HBR found that having a manager who balanced business needs with employee needs reduces the number of “quiet quitters” to almost zero (3%).

Demystifying the workplace rhetoric

It’s not just the phrase “quiet quitting” that’s distorted the message around workplace culture and the relationships between employers and employees. There’s a whole lexicon dedicated to the subject.

Let’s take job descriptions and job ads, for example. What does: “We’re looking for passionate employees” even mean? Or the expectation of: “Going above and beyond”?

Are employees expected to be in love with their job? And required to dedicate an unspecified number of hours to making it work? Even if the relationship’s unrequited?

Ironically, these phrases are often followed up with references to “wellbeing” and “work-life balance”. Used in this context, the commitment to “wellbeing” appears pretty disingenuous. In fact, rather than demonstrating any meaningful commitment, these high-impact words seem more an exercise in PR than anything else. After all, isn’t work-life balance a given? Is it something that needs to be said out loud? The employer “doth protest too much, methinks”.

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‘We’re hiring!’ and ‘About us’ pages are also full of loaded phrases such as: “Join our growing family!” and “Welcome home!”. A clever form of rhetoric, this kind of persuasive language is particularly emotive. It attributes all of the associations (good and bad) and behaviors (conditional and unconditional) that come with being in a family, with being an employee. Which sets the expectation levels and emotional engagement requirements for workers pretty high, no?

Almost passive-aggressive in their approach, expressions like these give the impression that the more dedicated an employee looks, the more professional and valuable they are. And that there are no boundaries to what you should be expected to do. (Who puts limits on their family commitments?). No wonder so many employees have signed up for the quiet quitting revolution.

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A time for opportunities

The quiet quitting revolution has highlighted two important areas of opportunity for businesses and HR professionals.

Improving culture

The first is the chance to look beyond the buzzword and address the wave of discontent, disengagement, and burnout that’s flooding the workplace. In other words, employees can either see quiet quitting as a threat, and react defensively by letting a misnomer distort the conversation. Or they can see it as a chance to adapt strategically and tackle the issues it raises about workplace culture. Which brings us onto retention.

Focusing on retention strategies is always important. But no more so than when faced with this kind of rebellion. What matters here is to develop and promote key engagement drivers such as: flexible and agile working, professional development, wellness, company benefits, and employer brand values. And to reinforce trust and facilitate meaningful interactions, particularly with managers. Falling back on a buzzword won’t achieve anything.

Improving language

The second opportunity is the chance to say it as it is. Using honest, unambiguous language to describe job roles, company culture, and employee expectations, isn’t just tactical. It’s the right thing to do. Yes, you want to appeal to your employees’ emotional side. But using language that exploits those emotions isn’t the way to do it. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. So show, don’t tell how much you value them.

Getting off the hamster wheel without really “quitting”

It’s an employer’s responsibility to see beyond phrases like “quiet quitting,” “quiet firing,” and “quiet hiring.” Sacrificing the truth for a catchy soundbite, they do more harm than good. And in the end, the truth is always more valuable.

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Christina Pavlou - Former Content Marketing Manager

Christina, ex-Content Marketing Manager at Epignosis, focuses on L&D, diversity, and enhancing workplace well-being. Learn how to improve your work environment. More by Christina!

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