S2 E6: Quiet Quitting and Building the Unbreakable Employer-Employee Relationship

October 24, 2022

Is quiet quitting just an example of engaged workers setting reasonable boundaries, or of an impending productivity crisis in your organization? Terry Cook, Jen Moff, and Jillian Derby lend their insights to this quiet quitting phenomenon.
When you think of quiet quitting, do you think of the film Office Space? Where Ron Livingston’s character Peter Gibbons abandons the concept of work entirely and does the bare minimum required of him? It’s one of the classics of the office comedy genre and if you haven’t seen it and work in an office, what are you waiting for?
The movie is a testament to our topic today: Quiet Quitting. While individual contributors might think in terms of otherwise engaged workers setting reasonable boundaries, employers might see them instead as slackers who are willfully underperforming.
To help us get to the bottom of quiet quitting and the impact of its cousin, quiet firing, on the organization, our own Jen Moff, Terry Cook, and Jillian Derby are here this week. Along the way, we share of a story of Google’s recent pronouncements on productivity for a potential example of the impact of quiet quitting at work
Links & Notes
  • AIM members can reach the HR Hotline at 800-470-6277 from 8:30 – 5:00 Monday through Friday for questions.
  • Contact Kelly McInnis at KMcInnis@AIMHRSolutions.com for more information on how AIM HR Solutions can help.
Podcast Transcript

Pete Wright:
Welcome to Human Solutions, simplifying HR for people who love HR, from AIM HR Solutions on TruStory FM. I’m Pete Wright, and this week we’re talking all about quiet quitting. Never heard of it? The term quiet quitting means different things to different people. Do a quick TikTok search though, and you’ll hear things like this. “I recently learned about this term called quiet quitting, where you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be our life.” So is quiet quitting just an example of engaged workers setting reasonable boundaries or of an impending productivity crisis in your organization? This week, Terry Cook, Jen Moff, and Jillian Derby join me to lend their insights to this quiet quitting phenomenon.
Oh. Hi, everybody. We have the panel together. Jillian, Jen, Terry, is this a quiet quitting intervention? Are you all still giving your all at work?

Jen Moff:
[inaudible 00:01:19]. Terry and I have had a good conversation about this recently. We have various points of view, which I think you’ll appreciate, Pete.

Pete Wright:
How did I do in the beginning? I chose a TikTok video, which is probably not the most robust, rigorous source of research. How did we do on defining, on allowing TikTok to define what is quiet quitting? Who would like to take that one?

Jen Moff:
Not it.

Terry Cook:
I can.

Pete Wright:
Just so everybody knows every, so they all put their fingers up to their nose with a not it motion. Okay. Terry, I’m calling on you.

Terry Cook:
Yes. No. I think you are accurate. I’ve read and heard the same thing. It’s not a new term, but it’s being brought back quite a bit now. And people will call it not giving their all. Some people will call it just having a better work-life balance that they may have become more aware of over the pandemic. So quiet quitting, definitely not a new term, but maybe has been further defined recently.

Pete Wright:
So how did this come about as a topic for our conversation? It feels like when we choose to talk about a subject on this podcast, it’s likely because you are starting to hear more about it across the association. Jillian, is that fair?

Jillian Derby:
Yeah. Something we’ve seen, hearing from members. It’s also something we’ve just seen trending on social media. And so when we have an HR group like this and a topic that’s so closely related to employers comes up, we want to make sure we cover it so that we’re providing information. And I also think that there’s two sides to the coin of quiet quitting. There’s the, I don’t want to say old school mentality, but there’s the mentality that you’re not giving it your all. And then there’s also the mentality of, “Okay. We need to set some boundaries here. What’s healthy?” So I think it depends on how you look at it.
And I think the other thing is that after COVID, the lines really got blurred between home and work. And so we’re almost starting over in a lot of regards. We’re in this new environment of being remote and it’s like, “Okay. I can’t always be putting out fires and working late.” So people are just burnt out. And I know Jen can speak more to the burnout piece of it, but I think it’s out there and it’s something that needs to be addressed, and it can be defined in either of those ways.

Pete Wright:
Then Jen, to you, this idea of using quiet quitting as a term to define taking more authority and agency in what I give to my workplace to my employer. Is that a fair assessment of what is going on here or is it just a way to say, “I don’t care anymore?”

Jen Moff:
The human brain loves to put things in boxes and loves to overly simplify to make sense of it, to understand the world. So they’re probably-

Pete Wright:
Well, that’s why I took this complex question and made it a binary answer.

Jen Moff:
I appreciate that.

Pete Wright:
Yes or no. Just for you, Jen.

Jen Moff:
Yeah. It’s either this or it’s this. There’s no in between, no gray area, no middle ground.

Pete Wright:
It’s not even a box. They’re just two little cups. Yeah. I’m sorry, go ahead.

Jen Moff:
So I’m sure there are people that would stand fully in either camp that you just outlined, and then I’m sure there’s people that also look at it different ways. There’s another TikTok I saw where somebody who identifies as GenX said, “This is nothing new. We called it coasting.” So there’s different language, and the meaning behind language or semantics is changing and evolving all the time. So like Terry said, these things are not new. But for whatever reason, it’s getting a lot of press. It’s getting a lot of publicity. And I think it’s very easy for us to say it’s one or the other. People want to understand it. And those are pretty easy to understand reasons for things.

Pete Wright:
I love this topic because just as it landed on our schedule, I read this article about Google. And Sundar Pichai, CEO, steps up in an all-hands meeting and says, “There are real concerns that our productivity as a whole is not where it needs to be for the head count we have.” He’s asking employees to help, “Create a culture that is more mission-focused, more focused on our products, more customer-focused. We should think about how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.” And I read this and all I thought was this is a post-pandemic, quiet quitting panic. This is 148,000 people being faced with exactly what you all just spoke of, this idea of having been at home and realizing what we have given up for the sake of our jobs and asking ourselves the question, “Was it worth it? Has it been worth it all along?”
And that leads us to this real issue. How do we as HR professionals handle, navigate the sea of uncertainty that comes with this particular wave of quiet quitting, of people who are asking themselves that question, “Should I be giving my all at work right now?” So what do HR managers do to keep their finger on this?

Terry Cook:
Yeah. I think a lot of it now is really relating to people. So we all know we went through a hard time. Human resources professionals know that just as well as anybody else because they were trying to navigate things for the company, but also for the employees at the same time. And I think a part of what I’m hearing is that employees just really want to be heard, and they want to know that they’re understood, and that there are some areas of blurring that can happen, as Jillian and Jen have mentioned, in the whole home life versus work life. So I think what I’ve been reading as well lately is that a lot of people really put a lot of emphasis on how they’re respected and treated and heard at work, even more so now than maybe they had realized they were doing before.
So they may have just been operating day-to-day, and then as this change happened with the pandemic, just realized the value of some of that balance that they could have. And they want to know that the company respects that balance and that they understand where they’re coming from. So I think that’s part of it, Pete. I think it’s just a lot more of style management. There’s been a lot of things I’ve read about that that said people want to be related to. They don’t want you to just give them an assignment. They want you to know who they are, and then also be able to say, “You know what? You have a family. You have a personal life. You have this going on outside of work. I know that. I want you to have that, and I value you as an employee during your hours of employment with us.”

Pete Wright:
We’ve talked a lot about burnout over the last couple of episodes, and mindfulness and ways to keep your sanity at work, particularly when you are challenged and stressed with all of the, Pete gestures broadly, things that we’re dealing with right now. So Jen, because you and I have been talking recently about some of these issues, how do you pivot some of what we’ve been talking about around preventing burnout into this quiet quitting discussion? Is there a tidy box you can put that in?

Jen Moff:
As it so happens, I have one right here. I just opened a lid and we’ll find some things inside.

Pete Wright:
A Marcel Marceau moment here on the Human Solutions Podcast.

Jen Moff:
So I think about this a lot because nothing exists in a vacuum. And quite frankly, I don’t believe that the pandemic is the main instigator of this. I believe this was happening prior to a pandemic coming upon the world. That was maybe a catalyst to accelerate the conversation. Probably in the last decade, I think we’ve all noticed just a slow crescendo and change in values and how people live their lives and work and what matters to them. You can see that even in the advancement of conscious capitalism and conscious consumerism. Not new terms, not terms that evolved from the pandemic. They were there before that. So people want different things. Different generations have different values. We run trainings and discuss how each generation has their own unique makeup and values.
So as new people come into the workforce, we have to pay attention to what they desire and what they need and not look at people as, “Oh. This is my pen. I use my pen. My pen is here to do a specific job, and if it’s not doing exactly what I want, when I want, how I want, I’m just going to throw it away.”
And perhaps people have felt that way. They’ve felt like, “I’m just a cog and a machine and they want more,” and that’s okay. We can change what we want. We can change our values, what we believe and our attitude towards work. And the companies that are really thriving in the marketplace, that are growing, that are sustainable, are listening to those wants and needs. They are asking their employees questions. They aren’t turning a blind eye. And that’s really what it takes, I think, as we continue to evolve.

Pete Wright:
And I listen to that and I think, of course, the reason we’re talking about it now is immediately, post-pandemic, when organizations rightly struggled over closures for years trying to figure out how to marshal the limited resources they had to actually get them to come into work and do things so that we don’t lose everything we’ve worked for. So that doesn’t come without some level of understanding about where we are right now. But it does allow us to pivot into the other side of this conversation. Jillian, what is quiet firing?

Jillian Derby:
Quiet firing is something that’s come up that’s the opposite of quiet quitting. So it’s when the employer or the manager is deliberately offering only a minimum wage and benefits in hopes that that unwanted employee would quit. This whole idea of quiet quitting and setting boundaries to me is uncomfortable because I feel like I always need to people please, and that’s just in my nature, so I wouldn’t go down this path. But I could see how somebody who has anxiety or somebody who is an employee could think that maybe their manager has it out for them. And I think that’s why it’s so important to go back to Jen’s point and Terry’s point of this healthy dynamic and open dialogue between a manager and their employee because I don’t run into that situation anymore. I have a great relationship with my manager, and I’m able to never feel that way because I know what her intentions are. We have good communication. But there are companies out there that are doing this quiet firing, and they’re doing it in retaliation to maybe some employees who are setting boundaries.

Jen Moff:
I absolutely, Jillian, can remember a time where that happened to me. It was definitely in the restaurant industry. That was very commonplace. “Oh. We’ll just reduce your hours. We’ll just eventually phase you out. We’ll never have to say anything. You just won’t have any time on the schedule.” So even that, it’s not a new concept, which I think is really fascinating too.

Pete Wright:
Terry, please tell me that there are issues when employees report that they’ve been quiet fired. Please tell me that Massachusetts has some statute that they can call on. I had this feeling if you and your dynamic duo, Tom, were on this show, you guys would have something to say to help me rationalize why that’s a horrible, horrible way to manage.

Terry Cook:
It definitely is a horrible way to manage, for a few reasons. First, Pete, yes, it’s called wrongful termination is the legal piece-

Jen Moff:
Thank you. Yes.

Terry Cook:
… that people can file. But honestly, in this labor market, what you’re going to start hearing and seeing more of is that the quiet firing is probably not the right way to do things because then you have to replace that person. So the better avenue, to your point, is to really have conversations and just talk about what it is that might be wrong. There’s people out there, I choose to believe this wholeheartedly, always have, that there’s people out there that may not even realize they’re doing something that’s wrong or that’s upsetting to the employer or isn’t as productive as they need to be. They are maybe those people out there that just need to have a conversation with you, and then you could see a change. I’ve seen it happen over and over again in my human resources career.
It’s like a supervisor will come to me and say, “Oh. This person’s always been like this. They’ll never get it. I think they’re going to have to leave.” I have a conversation with them and they’re looking at me like I have 10 heads like, “No one’s ever said a word to me before. I always thought I was doing a good job. So what is the problem?” And then we sit down and itemize it. And I’ve seen people turn around, do a whole 180. They just didn’t know honestly what they needed to do differently. And once they did, they did it. And Jillian mentioned some people are people pleasers, and there’s definitely those people out there, but those are the people that if they’re a people pleaser, they want to change. They want to make things right. But supervisors or managers that take the stance of, “I don’t want to deal with conflict, so I’d rather just sit back and see if this person will just go away because I’d rather that than have a difficult conversation.” That’s the problem.

Jen Moff:
Oh. I think I want to piggyback off of what you said with the people pleasing. Another thing that I’ve seen, not recently, but I have seen it in my career, a manager will exploit that people pleasing and then cause that person to overwork, overgive, and lead them to this place of burnout. And so again, it’s that communication piece. It’s that manager employee relationship that can also be, not a byproduct, but a result that leads to quiet quitting, as it were.

Pete Wright:
Yeah. It’s really this sort of [inaudible 00:16:03] relationship. The employer-employee relationship is, it has to work together. And I think that quiet quitting represents, on one hand, I think something very positive, which is again, taking agency and authority in your own career. But on the other hand, it’s sort of abdicating responsibility to have a partnership with your manager that says, “There is a line that I need to draw, but I still want to do good work here.” And that’s sort of what I’m hearing you all reflect, that this partnership is really important and it absolutely goes both ways, and there is no reason to start casting blame. I think quiet quitting, using it as a badge of honor, what I’m hearing is that’s a blame term. It’s blaming poor performance and poor productivity on people who aren’t giving it their all. And maybe they just don’t understand one another. So then as we wrap up, how do you maintain and create a culture that celebrates this psychological safety for everybody, for the HR managers, for the employees and employer?

Jen Moff:
I think from a training and professional development perspective, you have to invest in your people to have the skills to be able to do that, to have meaningful relationships. And I was doing an effective communication training the other day and I made a little joke. I was like, “We all talk. So we all think we know what communication is, but I have a degree in it.” There are so many classes about theories and models and just the structure of what effective communication actually is that we are not actively taught. It’s not part of parental caregiver teachings to their family members. It’s not part of school. So we have to see the value in learning and development of our staff, of our leadership. And it does. It rolls downhill. So we have to lead through example. We have to advocate for ourselves, those of us in leadership positions and say, “Hey. I want to develop myself. I want to be able to be self-aware, know what my pros and cons, positives, and challenges are so that I can work on them and model that it’s okay to do that.”
We have to continue offering and prioritizing that on an annual basis. It’s not just like a, “Okay. Well, we took this thing, and now it’s all done.” Development of any type, personal, professional, spiritual, what have you, it’s a commitment to self. And we have to embody that through how we show up at work every day.

Pete Wright:
So you come into work one day, and you’re an HR manager, and you start to have the inkling that you have some issues. You’re hearing complaints from managers. You feel like you might have a quiet quitting problem on your hands. Is that how it works? Are you seeing it as endemic in an organization or is it isolated? Is it contagious, I guess is the question. What is the hotline telling you?

Terry Cook:
Yeah. I mean, think if it’s a situation that’s not handled, it certainly could be spreading throughout the organization. But I think a lot of times, it’s exactly what Jen’s talking about in the communication. And I think it’s communication not only between the employee and their manager, but the upper management and the culture of the company and the overall respect of each other as employees and people. I think that’s sometimes the line that gets blurred is people don’t realize that employees want to be treated like people. I think even more nowadays, the style, the approach of your managers, it can very quickly spread the wrong way, as you’re saying, Pete. Jillian mentioned, we have a terrific manager. She has a open door, open communication, shows a high level of respect, which she gets both ways because of that. And I think when you do see that in the workplace, that’s when you get to see the differences.
And I do think when you ask about something being contagious, I think if somebody might see a manager treat one employee one way, everybody talks, everybody sees it, and then they’re all of a sudden going to be on the lookout and be maybe oversensitive to looking for that being the way they’re being treated right now. And then that’ll spread quickly through a department. And to your point, maybe it spreads further than that. So I definitely have seen hotline calls where an HR person calls in and said, “Oh. I know Pete can be like that as a manager. He’s difficult with his people.”

Pete Wright:
We really had to lean on Pete, Terry?

Jen Moff:
It’s another Pete. Another Pete. Absolutely not you.

Terry Cook:
It’s a whole, super popular name.

Jen Moff:
Common name.

Pete Wright:
I just thought we had a different relationship is all. That’s okay. Go on.

Terry Cook:
Yeah. So the other Pete that is difficult. I think when you let that go, it is a problem. And they’ll say that. They’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. That’s always been the problem.” But Jen came in and actually brought that to light now because Jen’s not afraid to communicate and talk about it, and she’s actually speaking what other people in the department have probably been feeling and thinking for years. So it’s not a bad thing that those things come to HR’s attention or to somebody’s attention because in essence, it could fix a lot of the workplace going forward and make it a place where people want to be. People want to please their company. They want everybody to succeed together because they feel that coming in the opposite direction too.

Jillian Derby:
There’s also something to be said by leading for example. So if you’re a manager and you’re answering emails late at night and you are always high stress, that goes on to your people. If I was getting emails from our manager at 8:00 at night, 9:00 at night, I’m the kind of person that’s going to say, “I need to respond right now. This is important.” So setting expectations that you don’t need to reply at night, or maybe having a delay. I know Outlook has that delay where you can send in the morning at 9:00 during business hours. That’s important as well. Little things like that can make a difference.

Jen Moff:
I love what you said there, Jillian, because I’m the newest member of the three of us that have been working with AIM HR. And Terry and I had a fantastic conversation about this when we were prepping for this. We’re getting ready for you, Pete. We had a good convo and I wish you could have been a fly on the wall because there’s obviously so much to talk about here. But Terry and I have very different styles in how we show up at work. And we respect each other so that it doesn’t become this, “Well, Jen does not work as many late nights,” or, “She’s not putting in the extra blah, blah, blah,” or whatever it is. We can point fingers and place blame on somebody else. Terry and I both believe in quality work. And so that shared value is what helps give us respect for each other because she has her own working style and I have mine.
And it’s easier to come into a role and establish boundaries than it is to make changes in the middle of your time there because it’s like changing any nature of a relationship. People all of a sudden go, “Wait. Something is different and I don’t know how I feel about that. Change makes me uncomfortable.” So I’m very grateful to Terry and I know that we’ve been incredibly productive, even with maybe some other companies might look at the way that I operate, and I have very good boundaries with my day to prioritize my mental health, my emotional health, my self-care, so that I can show up and do the best work I can when I’m here to do those things.

Terry Cook:
Yeah. And I say the same thing. Jen knows this. We’ve had that conversation where I’ll say, “You know what? When I took a vacation day, Jen, I took a lead from you and I actually took that day off and I just didn’t respond.”

Jen Moff:
Yes, ma’am. Yes.

Pete Wright:
That’s right. Lessons learned. Lessons learned.

Terry Cook:
We learn from each other every day. And just so you know, on a final note, Pete, because I think you’ll find this funny, one of the members of my staff said, “There’s plenty of t-shirts out there you can purchase on quiet quitting.”

Pete Wright:
Outstanding. Merch for the merch store. We are going to have to get into that, I think.

Jen Moff:
[inaudible 00:24:41].

Pete Wright:
Anything you feel like we’ve missed as we wrap up? Jillian, did we cover everything you wanted to make sure was on the list?

Jillian Derby:
I think so.

Pete Wright:
Yeah. Me too. This was a great conversation, you all. Thank you so much for hanging out and talking about this. And hey, if you are listening to this and you’ve got more questions, call the hotline. Head over to aimhrsolutions.com and learn more about AIM and what AIM is able to do for you to help you learn a little bit more about quiet quitting and creating a balanced environment, a balanced atmosphere at your office. As always, you can find links and notes, all of that back at aimhrsolutions.com. Listen to the show right there on the website or subscribe in Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you get to find podcasts. Thank you everybody for downloading, listening to this show. We appreciate your time and your attention. On behalf of Terry Cook and Jen Moth and Jillian Derby, the whole crew, I’m Pete Wright. I’ll catch you back here next week on Human Solutions, simplifying HR for people who love HR.