Pop quiz! An employee named Jill is supposed to start work at 8 a.m. and end her work day at 4:30 p.m. In between those times she is allowed two 15-minute coffee breaks and a one-hour lunch break, and is to perform certain tasks and duties. She is allowed two weeks of vacation time per year. All of this is laid out in the employment contract she signed when she was hired.
So Jill starts at 8 a.m. and clocks off at 4:30 p.m., takes her breaks in full, and performs all her tasks and duties. Outside those hours she does not perform extra work or answer work-related emails, and she doesn’t do this on her vacation time, which she takes each year. What do you call what Jill is doing?
If you answered (with a certain amount of puzzlement) “Er, doing her job?” then BZZZZ, wrong, thanks for playing. It’s now called “quiet quitting”, one of those phrases which has gone from being nowhere to being everywhere seemingly overnight, and it’s being used to describe the actions of a lot of workers who have had it up to here with expectations that they will show up early, work late, take on the duties of other people (and skip breaks in order to get the work done), postpone or curtail vacation time, and always be on call during their off time to answer emails that apparently just can’t wait.
In case you were wondering, all these expectations from employers don’t come with any extra pay or vacation time. The rationale seems to be that the kind-hearted employers have, out of the goodness of their hearts, done you the huge favour of providing you with a job, and you — the employee — are therefore expected to be the 21st-century equivalent of indentured servants. How dare you repay their generosity by doing precisely what you signed an agreement to do, you ingrate?
Somewhat predictably, given the times we live in, the workers who are described as “quiet quitting” (because, remember, they’re doing their job), and who are generally younger people, are coming in for some finger-wagging and tut-tutting. “Young people today are a bunch of lazy slackers,” seems to be the narrative. “No sense of responsibility or loyalty. They should be grateful they have a job.”
The thing is, they probably are grateful. It’s just that the job they signed up to do has now changed, because many companies and businesses have steadily been downsizing over the years in the name of cost-cutting. One of your two payroll clerks leaves or retires? Instead of hiring a replacement, the work is divvied up between the head payroll person and the remaining clerk. Same amount of work, but one less person to do it. You used to have a telephone receptionist, but they were let go; now whoever is closest to the phone when it rings, or isn’t busy (or is the least busy) answers it, in addition to everything else they have to do. You’re having trouble filling a certain position, so the work gets spread among the remaining employees “temporarily”, only “temporarily” becomes “permanently” when management realizes the work is still getting done (more or less) and they have one less person to pay. Win!
But it’s a loss for the remaining employees, who have to do all this extra work. We haven’t yet found a way to cram more than 60 minutes into an hour, so it often means coming in early, staying late, not taking breaks or vacation, and answering that “urgent” email at 10 p.m. on a weeknight or on a Saturday afternoon, for no more pay and often the same amount of thanks.
So if you’re one of the people putting your foot down by just doing your job, stop calling it “quiet quitting”. And if you’re one of the people using the phrase as a put-down for those who are doing their job, cut it out, and maybe direct your ire towards the employers who are demanding more, refusing to pay for it, and letting their employees take the flack.