Apparently the executive hive mind is finding out, now that a fair number of recent work-at-home staffers have been bludgeoned into coming back into the office, that they just aren’t that into overproducing to keep the bosses happy. The perception is that some (and any is too many in the eyes of our corporate slavemasters) are now willing to do only what the job demands, and not any more. The horror of having workers who aren’t fawning and fearful!
This new (bad) attitude is called quiet quitting. It’s become enough of a thing that both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have written about it in the last week. Mind you, there does not seem to be any actual data, which makes sense. Why would employers really want to know the degree to which employees aren’t in to them any more? And why would employees trust that any survey would be anonymous? So this newly visible lack of worker enthusiasm for jumping through hoops may be limited to once uber-competitive workplaces, where any decline in anxiety and aggression levels would be evident. And since those highly neurotic workplaces are often those of the supposedly most desirable companies, they’d be more intensely followed by the media than, say, Taco Bell franchises in the Southwest.
An overview courtesy Twitter:
“Quiet Quitting” is one of the more toxic forms of business double speak I’ve heard in awhile. Essentially it is a renaming of the concept of “Work-Life Balance” in order to give it a negative connotation. A linguistic gymnastic to discourage personal lives and favor productivity
— 🧡 Fluffy Menace 💜 (@ShepKyred) August 23, 2022
It’s not #quietquitting. In what universe is doing the work you were paid for, during the hours you are paid to be working, ‘quitting’? The implication is that you’re not really working unless you’re killing yourself & working daily overtime. Fuck that. I support #quietquitting
— Ed the Sock (@EdtheSock) August 24, 2022
Someone put into words why I hate “quiet quitting” so much when it’s just working to rule. pic.twitter.com/sYQMYLoSJg
— That Spaghetti Person (they/them) (@DangerHissy) August 23, 2022
It doesn’t get much more quintessentially late capitalist dystopia than employers rebranding “doing the job you were hired to do” as the pejorative “quiet quitting.”
— Instructor Florence Ashley (@ButNotTheCity) August 25, 2022
Recall that this new trend, whether real or a corporate strategy to try to restore lost psychologic leverage over employees thanks to Covid, follows ghosting, another new behavior that deeply offended employer confidence in their right to deferential treatment by job candidates. From Forbes in May 2021:
For high school and college seniors about to enter the workforce, certain norms and best practices of applying, interviewing and negotiating for jobs are taught and ingrained….
According to a February 2021 report by Indeed, 28% of job applicants had ghosted a prospective employer over the past year. That’s up from 18% in 2019, despite a global pandemic wreaking havoc on the job market and creating a shortlist of employment options. The numbers are even more startling from the employer side, with 76% reporting they’ve been ghosted in the past year and 57% saying it’s more common than ever before.
The level of ghosting is broad, with employers reporting that some candidates simply disappear from the process after an initial screening call or first interview. Despite the simplicity of an email to express a lack of interest but appreciation for their time, candidates choose the path of silence. However, others are taking the trend to a whole new level, with 46% of job candidates not showing up for a scheduled interview and 7% failing to appear for their first day after successfully landing a job.
On the one hand, Forbes said employers were keeping lists of these badly-behaved applicants. On the other, the article warned that this was a new normal and gave advice on how to reduce the incidence, particularly by being more transparent in the hiring process.
Personally, I’m delighted to see this long-overdue backlash against the “passion” requirement, that all goodthinking Serious Professionals were supposed to regularly and ritually show how passionate they were about their career. Jobs should not be put on the same plane as objects of lust.
Although bosses have been demanding more in an era of rising precarity and inequality (where a fall in income and status has far more dramatic effects than in the much more egalitarian 1960s and 1970s), my dim sense is it took a big ratchet up in the dot-com era. First, most startups were hot air, and the promoters were selling their spin skills. And working to death to garner all those eyeballs was usually a key part of the business pitch.
Second, the Internet era ushered in the expectation that employees (ex ones in lines of work like elite law and consulting firms, where new hires understood their lives were not their own) were on call, either to a degree or a lot, More and more companies expected as a matter of course that white collar workers were expected to monitor their e-mails and respond outside workplace hours. By contrast, in the old normal, a supervisor would have had to have a damned good reason to call a worker at home and expect them to Do Something.
So the Internet encouraged bosses to be disorganized, intrusive, and demanding. No wonder now that workers have gained some leverage that they’ve made it clear that enough is enough.
Not surprisingly, the undertone of the Wall Street Journal story is that employers are unsettled about their loss of emotional leverage. And of course, they’re resorting to old fashioned emotional manipulation: “It’s a tough and hungry world out there. If you refuse to be an ambitious hustler, you will be road kill”:
“Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life,” wrote Arianna Huffington, founder of health and wellness startup Thrive Global, in a LinkedIn post that has garnered thousands of reactions. Kevin O’Leary, co-star on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and chairman of O’Shares ETFs, called quiet quitting a horrible approach to building a career: “You have to go beyond because you want to. That’s how you achieve success,” he said in a CNBC video essay.
How quiet quitting’s advocates and critics react depends on what they think the phrase means—and interpretations vary wildly. Some professionals argue the concept is saying no to extra work without extra pay and work stress, not necessarily phoning it in. Many detractors say the quiet quitting mind-set fosters laziness and hurts performance, even if baseline job expectations are being met.
It’s entertaining to see old normal exploitative assumptions at work. Build a career? When median job tenure is 4.1 years? And there’s perilous little certainty about professional prospects? Look at how law firm hiring has fallen and the standing of doctors has declined as more and more are employees of giant hospital networks or PE owned outsourcing firms. Plus some celebrated individuals, like Timothy Geithner, were seen by grad school peers as the least likely in their class to wind up in the elite government fast track (Geithner was know for being much more fond of playing pool than studying).
One can go even further: if the Jackpot is coming, one’s time will be better spent on cultivating personal relationships than careerism, since it’s the out of work ties that are essential to forging communities that can navigate bad times.
But back to a more conventional take. Alternatively, I am told that the prototypical German office has everyone show up at opening time, work at their desk, have their proscribed lunch break, and leave at quitting time. This may seem like slacking off, except the Germans allegedly also work while they are working. No faffing off in a lot of meetings, phone chats, or lounging at the coffee station to gossip. Imagine how productive a US workplace would be if everyone did a concerted 6-7 hours of focused activity five days a week.
But the Americans boss types love guilt-tripping. Again from the Journal:
Some critics say they fear quiet quitting is corrosive to workplace cultures—and the bottom line—because it’s demoralizing to efficient workers to see others phoning it in without penalty.
But the piece ends with a call for more employer responsibility:
Jay McDonald, an Atlanta-based executive coach and former CEO of several small companies, says the onus is on business leaders to set clear performance expectations. If employees are meeting them, that’s what matters, not when or how long they work, he says.
“You have a responsibility to have good metrics and measurements for knowing whether somebody’s getting the job done or not,” he says.
Interestingly, the Journal typically has pretty rabid, stereotypical right wing views over-represented in its comments section, but this article elicited quite a few responses sympathetic to employees who wanted to set boundaries, and not very many of the “Slackers gonna get what they have coming to them” sort. For instance:
Every job is different, and employee is different, so it’s hard to say. I have objected to being on call after putting in a long day’s work, specifically told my boss I would not answer the phone or company emails on Friday nights or weekends. The company could have hired a second shift if they expect people to be on call 24 x 7. On the other hand, I did not mind working 70-hour weeks a couple times a year when we had information systems deadlines to meet, and I didn’t mind working those hours half the year when I owned a business. If you can crunch the overtime when it is needed, then there is no sense in working it when it is routine, unless you are getting paid hourly.
In that case work as much as you want. People working double-shifts at the factories are earning $90,000 a year in their 20s for line employees and $140K for supervisors. Those are 16 hour days. But you should not work like that for an 8-hour salary. If your employer demands it, you should think about moving on — unless its one of those employers that pays huge bonuses to the people they know are producing. Companies that want their people to work long hours should pay them appropriately; if they don’t, the company may have incompetent management that doesn’t know how to produce enough value to staff up properly. Nothing good will come of staying in a company like that.
This is a false argument that is a deflection from the real issue: management at most companies is ineffective and inefficient. Employees refuse to go above and beyond when hard work, time and energy produce no results. A company’s culture starts at the top. When a fish is rotten it’s from the head down.
Be alert when someone starts using the word “commitment” about you; it’s usually a way for them to extract more from you without any reward.
In other words, it was striking to see little pro-management jingoism in the comments (and there were a lot) and that when it surfaced, it elicited reasoned pushback. Maybe there is a long-term upside to Covid if it leads to a lasting change in the employer-employee balance of power.