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Quiet quitting: The not-so-silent phenomenon sweeping the workplace


Lately, you may have heard the buzzword quiet quitting. But what exactly is it if it’s not actually about leaving a job? An outgrowth of The Great Resignation, it’s a trend gaining traction on social media in which working professionals share their alternative to quitting their job outright.

Even among quiet quitters, there’s a range of behaviors. These employees fall into one of these groups, which are progressively more extreme:

  • I’m no longer going to stress out over my job and getting everything done perfectly, but I’m still going to be productive and produce quality work.”
  • I’m only going to do what’s asked of me and nothing more. I’m just going to coast along and won’t go above and beyond without additional pay.”
  • I’ve mentally checked out of work and plan to get by doing the bare minimum until I attract negative attention. I’m sheltering in job and will flee the minute a better opportunity becomes available.”

An employee who is quiet quitting hasn’t given their two weeks’ notice (yet!), but they’ve completely rethought their approach to work. Instead of giving their best, they could choose to do the bare minimum.

Why does quiet quitting matter?

If the employee is still meeting minimum requirements and finishing work – you might be wondering, “What’s the big deal?” It’s similar to a server at a restaurant. Is it a big deal if they don’t refill your water and check in a few times as long as they take your order correctly and deliver the food?

The concern with quiet quitting (and in the case of our example of the absent server) is that it indicates some level of disengagement and can be a form of protest against something an employee’s not happy about in their current job. When quiet quitting results from low employee engagement or even anger, it may indicate deeper problems within your workplace, such as distant leadership or an undesirable culture.

And it’s not all positive for employees either. Quiet quitting has the potential to impair relationships with colleagues and managers, and can lead employees to overlook or retreat from opportunities for sought-after work projects or even career advancement.

Why are employees quiet – and when do you need to worry?

Let’s talk about the quiet in quiet quitting. Really, it’s just a way of saying that these employees are stopping short of taking a big, noticeable step like quitting their job. Instead, quiet quitters are dialing back and, in doing so, may:

  • Lay low
  • Withdraw from social interaction in the workplace
  • Reduce their communication

To be clear, being quiet is not automatically a red flag. In fact, there are many valid reasons why an employee might be quiet.

Maybe an employee is an introvert, or outwardly appears quiet as part of their personality type. Quiet is part of their baseline.

It may be that an employee is focused and has their head down working, reflecting and planning. That’s actually a great thing! They’re doing what you want them to be doing.

The danger zone is where employees suddenly turn quiet because they feel like:

  • They have nothing to say of value
  • They have nothing meaningful to do
  • No one listens to them anyway

What’s the quitting in quiet quitting?

If employees get quiet because they have nothing to say or do, or that no one is listening, it can be related to their feeling:

  • Directionless
  • Purposeless
  • Unmotivated
  • Unfulfilled
  • Misunderstood
  • Underappreciated

All of the above feelings can make a person feel like quitting – or giving up – causing them to withdraw and, eventually, leave.

Who’s quiet quitting?

Across the entire U.S. employee population, engagement is falling. According to Gallup, employee engagement has declined for the first time in more than a decade, from 36% engaged employees in 2020 to 34% in 2021 – and now 32% in 2022.

So, if engagement is in a slump across the board, why has quiet quitting become a social media phenomenon primarily with younger workers? Why does Gallup data show that younger Millennials (born after 1989) and Generation Z workers have the lowest level of engagement of any age group?

Generally, different generations have adopted their own approaches to work. For example, Baby Boomers have long been recognized for their strong work ethic. Typically, they would do anything necessary to show merit and climb the corporate ladder.

With older Millennials, the new catchphrase became “work-life balance.”

Now, younger Millennials and Generation Z workers are all about “life-work balance.” It’s a subtle shift that reflects how they put their personal life first. Overall, their attitude is “I have a life and I have to work. But my work is just a part of my life – it’s not my entire life.”

When engagement is low as a result of feeling misunderstood, underappreciated and undervalued, this modern attitude toward work can easily shift into a more negative mindset: “They don’t care about me, so I don’t care about the company. I’m not doing anything extra to help them.”

Furthermore, younger generations live in the post-digital world. They’re accustomed to using technologies that, while making work more efficient and enabling remote work, have also created more barriers to face-to-face human interaction. In this way, their reliance on technology could encourage disconnection from others.

The small things you should look out for are behavioral cues, or “whispers.” And if we don’t pay attention to the whispers, then get ready for the shout.

What does quiet quitting look like?

Here are three possible stages of quiet quitting to be aware of:

  1. TOLERATE:This behavior/situation/person drives me crazy, but I just want to get back to my job. I don’t like it, but I’ll put up with it.”
  2. AVOID:I’ll do whatever I can to not deal with this behavior/situation/person. I’m looking for opportunities to get away or distance myself.”
  3. ELIMINATE:I’ve had enough, and I can’t take any more of this behavior/situation/person. I have to find a better place to work.”

As a leader becomes aware of the varying points within the tolerate and avoid stages, know that once an employee reaches the eliminate stage, they’re out looking for a new job and are no longer quietly quitting – they’re going to actually quit in the near future.

In addition to the withdrawal that we mentioned earlier, look out for any sudden changes in behavior that are the opposite of what an employee would usually exhibit. It could be a normally engaged employee suddenly getting quiet – or it may be a normally quiet employee suddenly becoming pretty outspoken and assertive.

A few more behaviors to put on your radar:

  • Disillusioned
  • Frustrated
  • Overwhelmed
  • Confused (by lack of direction)
  • Bored
  • Unenergetic

Pay attention to the small things – the potential warning signs that someone is looking to quit. (Of course, this task is more challenging when managing remote employees who aren’t directly in front of you to easily pick up on more subtle cues.)

The small things you should look out for are behavioral cues, or “whispers.” And if we don’t pay attention to the whispers, then get ready for the shout.

How to keep employees from quiet quitting and encourage re-engagement

1. Make sure that leaders’ cups are full

You know how flight attendants on airplanes tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? If you’re not taking care of yourself first, it can become very difficult to care for your team. You need to have energy for yourself so you can bring energy to your team members and keep them engaged.

There’s a tremendous amount of stress placed on leaders – though, that stress need not come at the cost of the team’s success. No one wants to be on a boat in a middle of a storm, the waves getting higher, only to discover that the captain jumped ship 10 minutes ago with the emergency raft.

So, here’s what you can do to help yourself:

  • Practice self-care
  • Emphasize the things that bring you passion in your work
  • Partner with other leaders to share learnings and best practices
  • Prioritize the things you enjoy outside of work that increase your energy and inspiration
  • If you’re a senior leader, don’t forget to take care of your middle managers

2. Bring energy to your team

Have you ever heard the phrase “If the audience is dead, wake up the speaker?”

If your team is disengaged, then you, as the leader, need to become a needs satisfier, not a needs frustrater. Start from a place of servant leadership, helping others to reach their goals.

Turn on the light and bring the energy in your workplace by implementing a culture of:

  • Love and belonging
  • Safety and security
  • Fun and learning
  • Results and autonomy
  • Recognition and worth
  • Growth and development

All of these attributes are interconnected and represent opportunities to meet needs and increase engagement within your team. 

3. Understand what brings YOUR team energy

From the above list of ways to introduce energy within your team, there will be certain areas that resonate more than others depending on your individual employees.

This is where you need to be aware of personality assessments, such as DISC or Myers Briggs. Connect the gifts or strengths that someone already has and tailor the work environment to them.

Summing it all up

Quiet quitting, the phenomenon of “I’m not quitting my job, but I’m not giving 120% either,” is a slippery slope when it’s related to disengagement or is revenge for perceived wrongdoings. As these employees advance through the stages of tolerate, avoid and eliminate, their lack of discretionary effort and growing negativity can have real impacts on your company and other team members.

To re-engage these employees, attend to your own passion and excitement for your work; create a trusting, inspiring and safe atmosphere that offers plenty of opportunities for recognition, growth and autonomy; and emphasize what is most important to your team according to their unique needs and personalities.

Want to learn more about how to overcome quiet quitting? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.