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Quiet Quitters and the Economic Recession

The economic recession may create a “pause” in the quiet quitting phenomenon, but tech leaders should investigate their management approach rather than assuming this is solely an employee problem.

Luis Paiva

By Luis Paiva

SVP of People, Technology, and Operations Luis Paiva helps manage and lead teams across BairesDev to implement the best industry practices possible.

10 min read

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Quiet quitting has been a hot topic among business and social commentators, particularly as work norms continue to shift after the global pandemic. Depending on who you ask, quiet quitting ranges from completely disengaging at work on one extreme to successfully performing your assigned duties but avoiding any “extra” effort.

A recent Harvard Business Review article defines quiet quitting nicely, suggesting that the phenomenon occurs when employees are no longer willing to engage in “citizenship behaviors,”  including staying late, showing up early, or attending non-mandatory meetings. The idea of employees as “citizens” is an interesting one and a helpful framing for leaders concerned about quiet quitting in their organization.

Origins of the quiet quitting phenomenon

Like many social contagions, a TikTok video popularized the idea of quiet quitting, suggesting that hustle culture and defining one’s life by a job were not healthy. This trend followed quickly on the heels of the Great Resignation, where employees were quitting jobs en masse during the global pandemic and, in many cases, not seeking new employment.

A rather depressing set of statistics compiled by health insurer Cigna shows a confluence of factors ranging from mental health and depression to dissatisfaction with work and benefits driving these trends. It’s easy to cite the pandemic as the root of all these challenges. Still, long-term trends ranging from globalization to technology-driven changes in the workplace have been redefining the nature of work and the relationship between employers and employees for decades.

Quiet quitting has garnered additional concern as the global economy teeters into recession. Employees who are dissatisfied with their work and fear difficult economic conditions seem more likely to “quiet quit,” collecting their paycheck while delivering only the minimum amount of work to get their jobs done, versus quitting outright. 

Is quiet quitting an employee problem or an employer problem?

One of the reasons quiet quitting has received so much attention is that the phenomenon resonates with both employees and employers. It’s easy to think of an example of this phenomenon on both sides of the relationship. We’ve all worked for a boss or organization that set unreasonable deadlines or demanded that employees forgo vacation and time with family for the company’s good. We’ve also probably seen press accounts of some hot startup celebrating employees sleeping at the office so they can spend more time working.

Similarly, as leaders, most of us have experienced employees that have “checked out” to one degree or another. They may perform their assigned tasks correctly and timely but merely shrug and smile if asked to go above and beyond those baseline expectations. As a leader, it can be highly frustrating that an employee who has been given every consideration seemingly refuses to reciprocate with a modicum of additional effort.

The “dual victim” nature of quiet quitting makes it a challenging problem. Most problems among people require concessions from both sides to reach an acceptable outcome. Employers that assume malicious intent by their employees without considering their policies and requirements are just as likely to meet with frustration as employees who believe their employer owes them a hefty paycheck and benefits without any effort on their part.

The recession factor

While there is some debate about whether the world’s major economies are technically in a recession, it’s indisputable that the stimulus-fueled economic boom that followed the global pandemic has passed. This has become particularly apparent in the technology industry, as major tech firms have gone from unabated hiring sprees to large-scale layoffs, with companies like Meta chopping over 10% of their workforce.

This is a stark change from just one year ago when tech companies assumed pandemic-fueled growth would continue for the foreseeable future, and most companies believed there was no end in sight for the “war” for talent.

This transition has created a massive shift in the balance of power between tech workers and potential employers. While it wasn’t always factual, pre-recession, many tech workers had a sense that they could readily find another job for more money and better benefits, perhaps even at a tech giant that promised free lunches and on-site acupuncture.

Possessing high-value skills likely led some employees to reduce their efforts at their current job. After all, why go the extra mile when you can leave for more money?

Some might perceive the recession as a righteous comeuppance, as over-indulged tech workers face a tightening labor market and reduced prospects. It might even be tempting to institute more draconian policies or demand more from your teams to “punish” any perceived quiet quitting behaviors.

However, it’s also worth recalling that many of those workers helped power your organization through the global pandemic and perhaps even helped it emerge from a whipsawing set of economic and geopolitical events. It might seem like a lifetime ago, but the early days of 2020 saw hundreds of firms laying off staff, cutting production, and otherwise going into “survival mode,” only to see industries ranging from automotive to fitness equipment experience an unprecedented boom. Like any human relationship, the employer-and-employee relationship requires mutual respect and compromise and is unlikely to last if one side acts in a purely self-interested manner.

Is quiet quitting really a problem?

While quiet quitting has been presented as a new and novel problem, it’s nothing new. This is especially true as globalization, alternative working locations, and different employment models like gig work have become common. The 1950s version of the workplace, where everyone flocked to a central office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. has become just one of several standard working modes.

There will always be mismatches between what leaders want to see from their employees and what those employees are willing to provide. These gaps could be due to a skill set, commitment, or a different outlook on the value and importance of work to that individual.

If an employee completes their tasks promptly at an appropriate level of quality, how much does it matter that they don’t attend a lunch-hour Teams meeting or show up at every after-hours social event? More foundationally, if they’re doing good work, how much does it matter to your organization that work and your company are in the middle of their life’s list of priorities rather than at the top?

Leaders of a team or organization generally rise to that position through a combination of significant effort and passion for that organization and the work that it provides. This can create a bit of an unfair benchmark, where these leaders hold their employees to a similar standard.

This standard might be appropriate in some situations but can also backfire. It might seem obvious that a strategic marketing employee should feel a deep passion for the brand and its products. However, an unbridled zeal for the company might be less appropriate in internal audit or corporate controls.

Some healthy skepticism for the company and its abilities can often be helpful, versus an organization stuffed with “true believers” that fail to assess the business environment accurately and might make decisions based on passion rather than information on the ground.

Beyond quiet quitting

The problem with phenomenons like quiet quitting is that they often offer an overly simplified view of complex issues. Underlying the trite idea of quiet quitting are deep sociological questions about how much time and commitment of one’s finite life people should apply to their trade. Even the more mundane questions that underlie concerns about quiet quitting can be profound, as recent Harvard Business Review research concludes that quiet quitting is a phenomenon triggered more by bad bosses than bad employees.

Employers might think it “above their pay grade” to consider profound questions about the value of work to an individual. However, these questions have faced humanity since the idea first emerged that work and leisure were distinguishable activities, with some of the first workday-related pieces of legislation, and the resulting pushback, occurring in the U.S. as early as 1670.

It might seem so fundamental as to go unstated, but different individuals will prioritize their work differently. This might depend on anything from that person’s value system to their current life stage. Conventionally a younger person might be more willing to dedicate time to the office than someone with a family, but those conventions are not always accurate.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong or immoral with an individual choosing to focus exclusively on their work or, conversely, prioritize their life outside work. Rather than making assumptions based on age or gender, build a culture in your workplace where it’s acceptable to discuss one’s broader priorities.

This can be especially effective for leaders in your organization. They mandate activities and behaviors and serve as role models for your employees. Suppose they’re willing to share how they prioritize certain activities or that they often struggle to make the right choice when faced with unusually high work demands. In that case, they’ll help build a culture where employees feel they can discuss these concerns.

A modicum of empathy can go a long way, and each of us has struggled at some point to balance work, family, recreation, health, and the myriad other daily goals and demands that modern humans face.

Mitigating the quiet quitting contagion

Perhaps the worst possible mitigation for quiet quitting is also the most tempting. Rather than addressing the very human questions behind how work is valued and how different individuals perform their assigned tasks, it’s much easier to install corporate “spyware” that monitors employees’ keystrokes or hire some consultants to create elaborate employee productivity scores in an attempt to “catch” bad actors.

These mitigations assume that there’s a “right” way to work and that any deviation from that idealized version of work is nefarious. Many of these tools seem intuitive initially, and the tech and “data-driven” marketing pitch can resonate with leaders. However, it’s worth asking yourself: If one employee moves their mouse or clicks their keyboard more than another employee, are they more productive? Similarly, if one individual is diligently parked in front of their monitor for eight hours each day, will they invariably outperform someone who spends four hours sitting at their desk?

Attempting to “score” productivity through metrics that don’t particularly capture the output of many types of workers is likely to backfire. This method reframes what employees do around a score, and like most games, employees will seek to maximize that score rather than advance the company’s interests.

One of the best mitigations for quiet quitting is assessing whether it’s a one-off occurrence or has become “contagious” within a particular team, department, or skill set in your organization. There will always be people leaving your organization, and perhaps some will engage in some variation of quiet quitting, especially as the economy sours and job change prospects diminish.

Simply dismissing any workers you discover as having quietly quit their jobs as uninvested or a slacker does little to address the problem outside the rare cases where you identify an isolated individual who has quietly quit.

Start with deciding whether a quiet quitter negatively impacts the organization or if this individual merely prioritizes work differently than the norm. If this person is objectively completing their work at an appropriate level of quality but perhaps invests their passions elsewhere, determine whether that’s harmful to the organization.

Then, investigate whether the individual is part of a broader trend or a one-off case. If they aren’t part of a broader phenomenon, consider individual discussions with that person. Perhaps their perceived quiet quitting is due to an unconventional work style or boredom with the tasks they’re generally assigned.

It’s also worth looking at the individual’s leader. As the HBR article above suggests, quiet quitting is often a reflection of lousy leadership more than a fad or affliction of a particular age group or demographic of workers. Leaders that are finding quiet quitters everywhere have either ended up in a rare “perfect storm” of substandard employees, perhaps have unreasonable standards, or could use further leadership development.

Avoid quiet quitting before it starts

Quiet quitting is ultimately an employee engagement problem. If your employees are consistently not engaging at the level you require, approach the problem from that direction rather than assuming your employees are acting nefariously.

Engagement can be a complex problem to address, and solutions can be counterintuitive. For example, allowing workers more freedom to set their schedules can increase their engagement far more than a forced schedule. However, properly engaging employees and doing so in a manner that allows for some flexibility can reduce quiet quitting.

Avoid applying a “one size fits all” fix to emerging engagement problems. Providing options will allow employees to engage in a way that makes them most productive. It might be more satisfying to place the blame for any quiet quitting behaviors squarely upon your employees’ shoulders. Still, some organizational self-reflection and proactive focus on engagement can reduce or even eliminate quiet quitting before it starts in your organization.

Luis Paiva

By Luis Paiva

Luis Paiva helps lead BairesDev's Delivery, Tech, Client Services, PeopleX, and Executive Assistant departments as SVP of People, Technology, and Operations. Working with Operation, PMO, and Staffing teams, Luis helps implement the industry best practices for clients and their projects.

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