VOICES: Quiet quitting as a silent protest movement

Managers are confronting a silent protest. Workers are engaged in “quiet quitting.” Employees want to understand its benefits as managers contend with its consequences. Quiet quitting does not entail quitting one’s job. It is reducing one’s effort to the minimum level required. This practice is a shift in traditional, American business values.

Values are reassessed; sometimes they are radically redefined. When values shift, it creates tension between those advocating for a new position and those defending the old. Often those maintaining traditional values experience confusion and resentment. The quiet quitting movement is no different. Traditional, American business values assert that hard work pays off through bonuses, raises, or promotions, and that by working hard one will achieve “the American dream.” Management is easier when workers believe this. If reality is inconsistent with that story, workers become skeptical and eventually demand change. When they do, they are often met with resistance from those benefitting from the current situation. Historical shifts in American labor practices provide context.

The nature of work changes. Estimates for the average number of hours worked by Americans in the manufacturing industry range between 60 to 70 hours per week in the 1800s. Through labor movements, these were reduced to 50 to 60 hours per week by the early 1900s. More recently, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, established a minimum wage along with a 40-hour work week, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, aimed to ensure that work environments were free from acknowledged hazards. For each advancement, those who benefited from a lack of employee protection decried that these labor rights would increase costs, reduce their ability to compete, and were inherently un-American.

Quiet quitting makes sense if organizations are subject to two common constraints. Most organizations are shaped as pyramids, not squares. Being promoted is a competition, and there will always be fewer winners than players in the promotion game. Doing more than is required can be a way to earn a promotion, but not everybody who does more will be promoted. Additionally, there is often a wage range that an organization is willing to pay for a given labor category. If one is at the top of that range, doing more will not result in a salary increase. Managers will likely attempt to encourage these people to continue to do more, because it is beneficial to the organization, not because it is beneficial to those workers. It is exploitive to expect workers who will not be promoted and who will not receive a salary increase to continue to do more than what is required. As workers figure this out, they are increasingly deciding to quiet quit at work.

Social movements emerge in response to systemic problems. When they do, those in power often attempt to marginalize them. Quiet quitting exists today for a reason. Management may attempt to rationalize it by saying the new generation of employees is lazy, unreasonable, or doesn’t understand how things work. Such a response may be comforting, but it fails to address the legitimate concerns of those who find quiet quitting a rational path toward a better life. Doing more can be a path towards career advancement. For many it is not.

If the workforce doesn’t see how working hard and doing more is beneficial to them, that is a failure of management not a shortcoming of those working.

Ross A. Jackson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Business at Wittenberg University and the author of Management in Quandary: A Critique of Organizational Power.

Quiet quitting: Passing fad or a workers’ movement?

“Quiet quitting,” “acting your wage,” “inflation-adjusted effort” or whatever else you might call the new phenomenon of workers choosing to do less in the workplace, it appears to be affecting employers across the country and in our communities. Hear from three perspectives on quiet quitting and what it might mean for the future of work.

» Quiet quitting or acting your wage?

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» Quiet quitting as a silent protest movement

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