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Quiet quitting energized by employee fearlessness

The still-strong job market may be the fuel that keeps quiet quitting alive. Employee fear over job loss has been replaced by an overconfidence in finding a new one.

Quiet quitting may be here to stay if the economy continues to see high numbers of job openings. For now, many employees aren't fearful over a possible job loss.

Quiet quitting is used to describe employees who continue to do their jobs but do not go above and beyond what they were hired to do, according to Gartner. In a recent Gartner survey of 160 HR leaders conducted last month, quiet quitters accounted for 23% of employees.

Under the surface, quiet quitting is a new term to describe an old problem -- quitting in place. That problem tended to be limited to specific employees and employers, said Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner's HR practice. But since COVID-19, quiet quitting or quitting in place has been broadening and "seems to be a societal trend that's playing out," he said.

Quiet quitting catches on

Before quiet quitting, the power dynamic in the employer-employee relationship often worked in favor of the employer, according to Tim Gardner, associate professor of management at Utah State University. He also said that employees were more motivated to perform and seek promotions because the opportunities at their employers were better than the external job market.

Now, with recent government data showing more than 10 million job openings in the U.S. and record-high quit rates, that's changed.

I don't think we have ever seen a time in modern history when people are so fearless about losing their job.
Tim GardnerAssociate professor of management, Utah State University

"I don't think we have ever seen a time in modern history when people are so fearless about losing their job," he said. "I think almost everybody feels, 'If something happens to me, I could find something else.'"

This fearlessness "disrupts how companies have to manage their employees," Gardner said. 

Along with job demand, Gartner's Kropp said he believes the pandemic has prompted employees to reconsider the role of work in their lives. "Do I want to give up that time with my kids just to work more for my employer?" he said.

Kropp said some employees also believe they aren't sharing in the revenue gains over the last few years or getting wage increases that keep up with inflation. "A lot of those benefits have not trickled down to employees," he said.

Employees who are losing ground because of inflation may be saying, "'Why should I bend over backward to support my employer if they're not going to meet me even halfway?'" he said.

Pre-quitting vs. quiet quitting

Quit rates at U.S. employers have been at or near all-time highs and identifying turnover risks is an area that Gardner studies. 

Gardner, working with other researchers, surveyed managers over periods of time and asked them to describe recent changes in employee behavior. From that, the researchers identified 13 pre-quitting behaviors, including a decline in work effort, focus, motivation and productivity, increased negativity and expression of dissatisfaction, less interest in pleasing their manager, and leaving work early with increased frequency, among others. 

But Gardner said the research team built its pre-quitting identification model in 2016, "under the notion that people had a relatively healthy fear of losing their job." 

Gardner said that quiet quitting can transition to pre-quitting behavior, giving managers clues to employees who are a turnover risk.

Suppose a manager suspects a valued employee is planning to leave and is someone the manager wants to retain. In that case, Gardner recommends holding a "stay interview" with the employee, which is an explicit discussion about, "What's going right with us? What's going wrong?"

Other employers are using employee monitoring technology to see if employees are working fewer hours or skipping out of meetings they might have attended in the past, according to Kropp. Companies are also training managers to help identify differences in working behavior.

It's unclear whether quiet quitting employees are on the path to quitting, Kropp said. But some quiet quitters may believe that employers have not met them halfway for the extra efforts they have put in, he said.

In short, employers are "going to have to pay more, recognize the employees for the contributions they are making," and "promote them and reward them when they deserve it and earn it," Kropp said. 

What's old is new again

Patrick Manzo, CEO at Kazoo Inc., said he sees quiet quitting as a "new name for something old, which is people who are demotivated and not engaged in their work." Kazoo makes an employee experience platform that includes employee listening, recognition and rewards as well as performance management capabilities.

Kazoo's platform surveys employees and uses sentiment analysis to track engagement levels in different groups and organizations. The system doesn't identify individual employees, Manzo said. Addressing falling engagement will take efforts by managers to have regular conversations with employees about, for instance, professional development, he said.

Manzo said he believes that issues central to quiet quitting will resolve as employers do more to address engagement. But over time, the employment market may change as well, with fewer openings, "and that may change the view that any job is fungible because I can find another -- one that is equivalent or better in the space of an afternoon."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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