A Quiet Place Too? How employers should deal with employees who are quitting in place

Attorney James Reidy

COVID-19 impacted the workplace in many ways. First it was stay at home orders. Next it was furloughs. Then came waves of infections and illness. The responses from government and employers included, not in any particular order, screening protocols, vaccine policies, insurance subsidies, paid leave, augmented unemployment benefits and work from home accommodations. Before there was a vaccine some employees said they wouldn’t return to work until there was a vaccine. Once there was a vaccine some employees resisted the shot because it was so new, and others sought medical or religious exemptions. Still other employees found they preferred to work from home because of childcare issues, concerns about safety, they felt more productive, or they simply discovered a work life balance that had eluded them before the pandemic. While the COVID-19 virus is still with us the impact, at least for now is far less severe than before. As a result, the pandemic-related subsidies and assistance from government have ended and many employers are trying to get remote and hybrid employees back to the workplace. Still, many have resisted the call to return to the office and others who return have a new approach to work: they are not working as hard as before. This phenomenon is referred to as “quiet quitting” and employers are now having to address this new reality.

The first problem is discovering the quiet quitters. That is because these employees still show up to work and they perform their jobs. The quit is subtle. Quiet quitters simply do what they need to do and nothing more. One employer recently described it as a student settling for a C or even a D grade or an athlete not trying to win the race and instead just focusing on finishing. So why not just quit? There are plenty of other jobs out there. Nationally unemployment is 3.5% and in New Hampshire it is as low as 2.3%. While inflation has chipped away at wages still wages are higher than before as many employers are desperate to fill vacant positions. Again, so why not actually quit rather than quit in place?

A recent Gallup poll shows employee engagement is declining.  A recent Wall Street Journal article found that “every generation enters the workforce and quickly realizes that having a job isn’t all fun and games.” COVID-19 caused many employees, both young and old to reexamine their priorities. Over the last two years many Baby Boomers opted for retirement rather than deal with the challenges of coming in to work, masking, daily screening, vaccine mandates or navigating remote work technology challenges. This may have been the first wave of the Great Resignation during the last few years. Other waves followed as employees resisted calls to return to work or simply decided to pursue other work opportunities. Others opted to downshift. While not exclusive to Gen Z the majority of quiet quitters appear to be in that demographic. The Wall Street Journal article interviewed several people in that age group and there was a common thread among “ these 20-somethings who joined the working world during the Covid-19 pandemic, with all of its dislocating effects, including blurred boundaries between work and life. Many workers say they feel they have power to push back in the current strong labor market.”  This is not an indictment of younger workers or another version of “ Well, in my day…” or “ Young people today…” as that Gallup poll found across generations, employee engagement is falling. That said the survey still found Gen Z and younger millennials, born in 1989 and after, reported the lowest engagement of all during the first quarter at 31%. That segment of the workforce is obviously not in a position to retire. Many in that generation, as well as their older colleagues, are also not interested in joining another workplace and have to adjust to a new job and a new group of co-workers. Instead, they have simply chosen to work at a pace of their choosing and not overextend themselves.

Perhaps this is a short term reaction to the wide-spread disruption of COVID-19 or it could be a larger phenomenon and reshaping of the concept of work. Either way employers need to identify and address this new approach to work.

Quiet quitting or quitting in place are somewhat misleading concepts. First of all, these employees are still working. Secondly, these employees aren’t standing on their desks in protest like Sally Field’s character in Norma Rae ( forgive the dated reference) or the radical bad acts plotted by frustrated employees portrayed in Horrible Bosses. . These employees are more like the lead character in Office Space ( a 1999 movie out at least 10 years before Gen Z folks were born) someone who does just enough to get his work done and nothing more . All workplaces have one or two coasters: employees who have others take the laboring oar. But what if you have several employees who no longer put in the extra time or effort? How should employers address these issues. Here are a few suggestions.

Survey your workplace

Because you may not initially notice or be aware of employee dissatisfaction or lack of hustle you should consider a survey to take the temperature of the workplace and identify issues that may have caused employees to slow their roll. Employees may comment on working conditions, wages, benefits or wanting more time off. To ensure candor you should make responses anonymous.

Be careful not to react too quickly

Let the responses settle in. Think carefully how you will respond. You want to avoid knee jerk reactions especially if the employees complain about workplace safety conditions, or wages and benefits as those issues are protected under the National Labor Relations Act.  Again, the purpose of the survey is to identify underlying issues that may cause employee engagement to drop. Sure, workplace hazards or other serios matters should be promptly addressed. But you otherwise want that to reverse course and do so in a positive way to retain good employees and hopefully motivate them to engage more.

Review production and productivity statistics

Another way to get a sense of slowed performance is to review actual performance, generally and specifically, when compared to annual and quarterly goals. This could identify departments, groups or individuals that need attention.

Look at overtime expenses

While employees may still work overtime to earn premium pay, you may notice a drop off in overtime hours and that could be in indication that employees aren’t putting in the extra time. All employers need to control payroll costs and limiting or managing overtime can be a good thing, but if employees aren’t raising their hands and agreeing to needed overtime work you may have a problem

Watch for signs of malaise

I’m not talking about employees sleeping on that job, but that could be a real sign of lack of engagement. Other signs of malaise could include a drop off in employee participation in team building, meetings and group activities. Unusual attendance and tardiness issues could also be a sign of an unplugged employee.

Incentivize and reward Initiative

Money isn’t always a motivator, but it can help jump start an employee who has been stuck in neutral. That can come in the form of a raise or bonuses.  Other motivators can include stock options, more paid time off or permitting fully remote or hybrid work arrangements in exchange for increased performance.

24/7, 365 isn’t realistic.

There are some jobs that require on call time and extended work hours but even firefighters, police, doctors, nurses and EMTs get time off. Employees need down time. They need time to recharge.  After hours texts, and calls or emails on Sundays from supervisors or managers shouldn’t be routine. While they may be necessary from time to time if it could have waited employees will grow to resent the interruption in their down time and the unnecessary download of stress.

Recruit new motivated talent

Sometimes a new recruit can cause others to step up their game. Like a rookie quarterback who wants to take the starting roll from a veteran, you should look for new employees who have the interest and desire to perform at a higher level.

Make sure Managers and Supervisors Give Fair and Accurate Performance Assessments

You can’t properly gauge and address lack luster performance if managers and supervisors don’t provide accurate performance assessments. While overly critical assessments can cause an employee to give up an unrealistically positive performance, like grade inflation, can cause an employee to coast. It can also impact the morale of co-workers.

We are colleagues not family

You can of course be friendly with co-workers and managers can, from time to time, organize social events during and after business hours but employees need time with their family and friends or just by themselves. Employers need to respect that space and separation.

Implement and Enforce Performance Improvement Plans

When necessary, and in an attempt to address performance issues and retain an employee, employers should not be reluctant to develop an individualized performance improvement plan for the under performing employee. Hopefully, this will help employer and employee identify areas where the employee needs to improve. That plan should be monitored and enforced. If performance improves both employer and employee benefit. If performance doesn’t improve the employer must be prepared to act. Again, this can be helpful as other employees are watching how the employer responds to poor performance.

When necessary don’t be afraid to discipline, demote or discharge

No employer enters into an employment relationship with a new employee with the intent of terminating that relationship but there are instances when either for a new employee or a longer term employee who can’t or won’t perform the job as required. In those cases employers need to act . But to avoid or reduce the risk of a discrimination or other workplace claim, performance or conduct issues should be documented.

Keep your ear to the ground and eye on the horizon

Workplaces of all types evolve in responses to changes in the culture and marketplace. IN order to survive and hopefully thrive in the weeks, months and years ahead employers need to be ever watchful and aware of issues that may cause employees to disengage. Like COVID-19 disengagement can be highly contagious. While staying current with workplace trends and forward thinking can help organizations stay vibrant and relevant employers must also be aware of the undercurrents that can cause even the best organizations to stall and faulter.

The reality is we are all still recovering from the many challenges COVID-19 presented. It could very well be that we will never go back to the ways of a pre-pandemic workplace. That said, employers of all types and sizes shouldn’t settle for “ good enough” performances when they need more from employees for their organizations to survive and thrive. The key is as one Human Resources Director said recently, “ To find the sweet spot, employers need to better identify their workplace mission and goals, to communicate that to employees, to provide more opportunities for buy in and incentives for growth and at the same time recognize many people may chose to no longer be slaves to their jobs. “ Time will tell if this quiet quitting phenomenon is part of a COVID-19 hangover or the leading edge of the workplace of tomorrow. Either way, employers need to recruit and retain talent and with that decide what they will accept by the way of performance.