Verdict: “Quiet Quitting” Is Unethical. Next Question?

I had happily never heard of the term “quiet quitting” until last week, and now it is supposedly a hotly-debated ethics topic. There’s nothing to debate about. “Quiet quitting” is not new (the term may be new), nor is there any defense for it. It is un-American to its core. But as so many American values are being eroded by revolutionary fervor of people who simply don’t like the unique history, culture and principles that make the nation the unique entity that it is, it figures that slacking at one’s job and being self-righteous about it would be on the rise.

It is, there is little doubt about that. Ethics Alarms has mentioned the trend of increasingly poor and unaccommodating service in every sector. The usual explanation is the under-staffing that the destructive pandemic lockdown facilitated, but it’s good that focus is falling on the declining belief in seeking excellence in all one does, and putting out one’s best effort at all times. The death throes of American dedication to excellence as a cultural value is what has been newly christened “quiet quitting,” the many ways in which workers reduce the time, energy, and care they commit to their jobs.

In a post that now has more than 3.4 million views—you know: morons—TikTok user zaidleppelin described quiet quitting as a rebalancing of expectations, saying, “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.” Nice euphemisms and rationalizations there, zaid (may I call you zaid?). What you are talking about is stealing—from your employer, from your employer’s business and customers, and from the American society and economy. This, in increments, makes everyone’s life a little more frustrating, a little less productive, a little less enjoyable and a little more lousy. It is a breach of the social contract. When this destructive attitude becomes the norm, then everything and everybody suffers.

The attitude is endemic to socialist and Communist nations, and has been the Achilles heel of those failed experiments from the start. Once excellence, diligence and self-respect are no longer required for a citizen to derive the same benefits as “hustlers,” then hustling becomes the mark of a sap. “Quiet quitters are merely fulfilling their duties as laid out in their job description, something that only seems remarkable in the context of exploitative workplace culture that is so pervasive in the U.S.” opines one advocate of workplace slugdom. That’s the language of Marxism: working for compensation is being “exploited.”

In truth, doing a good job, and the best you can, is supposed to be a reciprocal value. I benefit in thousands of ways from all the many people doing their best to serve my needs, and I spend seven days a week, 50 plus hours a week, trying to make the world more ethical. It’s a good deal. The deal doesn’t work, however, if my time is wasted and my efforts sabotaged if, as happened last week, a staff that was being paid to support my work shrugged off little details like deadlines and preparation, and then complained bitterly when I expressed my dissatisfaction. The lawyer who paid for my presentation got a sub-par product. The organization’s concern was that I wasn’t pleasant about its staff’s performance.

What is remarkable is that the ethics argument against “quiet quitting” is the same the one I have been making for decades in the non-profit sector to volunteers who excused their inadequate performance by reminding me that they weren’t being paid. My position: I don’t care. If you commit to doing a job, regardless of what the compensation may be, you commit to doing it as well as you can. Now the lazy standard used to claim virtue while still slacking has moved from “I’m not being paid” to “I’m not being paid enough,” or “other people get paid more than they should.” It is the same failure of character on display.

Recent polling from Gallup found that a large share of the U.S. workforce, including more than half of workers born after 1989, can be classified as “not engaged” at their jobs. No wonder. Increasingly children are being taught that they are entitled to praise, accolades and benefits irrespective of their efforts, demonstrated skill and results. They grow up seeing dim and shallow celebrities treated as fonts of wisdom and becoming rich as a result; now, according to one poll, 25% or more of Generation Z plan on making their living as “social influencers.”

The current Woke World values hold that one’s color or sexual identity should be sufficient to justify an advantage in competitive society. Even criminal acts are not supposed to have more than minimal negative consequences. The President of the United States appears to be “phoning it in.” The idea of a guaranteed “living wage” without any requirements for a minimum benefit to be realized by society in exchange for that wage is increasingly seen as “just.”

But what “quiet quitting” constitutes ethically is startlingly simple. It arises from a rejection of the Golden Rule. I do my best for those affected by my work and those who trust and rely on me, because I want them to treat me the same way. It’s mutual respect and consideration.

The quiet quitters are selfish and unethical, and if they get the cultural upper hand, they will cripple society. They need to be rejected, condemned, and stopped.


25 thoughts on “Verdict: “Quiet Quitting” Is Unethical. Next Question?

  1. The attitude is endemic to socialist and Communist nations, and has been the Achilles heel of those failed experiments from the start. Once excellence, diligence and self-respect are no longer required for a citizen to derive the same benefits as “hustlers,” then hustling becomes the mark of a sap.

    And labor unions. You forgot American labor unions. I know they’re related to the socialist/communist thing, but it’s well worth reminding… especially in the context of unions of government employees.

  2. I’m torn on this one. Some definitions I have heard of the term seem to be a simple dereliction of duty, which is, of course, reprehensible. However, as a simple limiting of tasks to those minimally included in the job description, I’m not quite sure. I’ve always heard the encouragement to do more than your job requires, to be the best you can be. I’ve also worked several jobs which expected employees to do their jobs, and all those below them as well. Being expected to go above and beyond is not precisely the same as enabling the employers to cut back on janitorial staff by simply expecting the salesmen and secretaries to shovel snow, clean the bathrooms, and take out the trash. Helping out when short staffed is one thing – the creeping expansion of job duties without any remuneration is quite another.

  3. I’m wondering what kind of work this person does that he can be performing his job duties and still be considered “quitting” in any form. In my line of work, performing your job duties means getting it correct, complete, verified, documented, on time, and within budget, every time, reliably. That’s not something that just happens without ‘hustle’. It takes effort, focus, and diligence. If you leave these things out, you’re kidding yourself that you’re performing your duties. If you put them in, you’re not on any sense “quitting.”

  4. When I was twelve, I began helping neighboring farmers during haying season, as did all the boys in three farming valleys in my rural community. I can still hear my dad saying, as I walked out the door to catch my ride for the first day’s work, “Make ’em a good hand, son.” I heard those same words with every subsequent job I had as a kid, and as an adult I continued to hear them in my head, as I can hear them now. He didn’t have to explain to me what he meant; I had learned hard work at my parent’s knees since I was a little kid.
    Putting in a good day’s work was easily learned on the farm, where there are no shortcuts and no gaming the system. You either put in the work to obtain the harvest or you don’t, and even when you do there are no guarantees. Virtually every one of my childhood friends was raised the same way, and it shows in the types of men and women they, by and large, grew up to become. I’m afraid that we largely failed the two succeeding generations by making things too easy for them, and now few of them appreciate the value of hard work, or even have much idea what a hard day’s work looks like.
    And get off my lawn!

  5. “The President of the United States appears to “phoning it in.””

    I suspect (and am deeply horrified by the idea) that Biden is doing his best. He was never terribly competent, even in his prime, and now he’s rapidly losing the handful of chipped and cracked marbles that are left rattling around inside his skull. I think the sad, pathetic performance we’re seeing is the absolute best he can muster, possibly even with pharmaceutical assistance.

    Maybe the American people should stop “quiet quitting” their job of selecting at least minimally competent, preferably only mildly corrupt, representatives to run this failing nation.

  6. Man, it feels like forever and a day since I’ve had time to comment here – I guess that’s what getting stuck in the maelstrom of working on a pair of masters degrees will do to you. Well, degree one is finished now, so hopefully I find a bit more time to contribute to the dialog.

    So, full disclosure, I hate the terminology and discussions around “quiet quitting”, both as a manager, and as an employee. Part of this is because it is unethical – but also part of it is because a lot of current discussions seem to be about deflections and doublespeak, and they just frankly aren’t doing anyone any good.

    Some instances of quiet quitting are simply laziness on the part of the employee – this shouldn’t surprise us (I can make a strong argument that laziness when possible is actually a biological predisposition, and furthermore beneficial to societies when channeled appropriately), and while performing excellently is a virtue, and should be a path to success, it is not a necessity in all things. The American experiment, and indeed all civilizations (western and eastern), have gotten along just fine with the majority of individuals being mediocre – the trick has historically lay in defining mediocre as still sufficiently productive to support a society when the majority of its members are at that level, while allowing those who wish to perform exceptionally to do so. So, in the situation where quiet quitting is about laziness, the only major question to be answered is what constitutes acceptable levels of performance in the role at hand, and have those been adequately defined and communicated to the person in that role.

    This is why I hate hearing the discussions as a manager – they almost always ignore that there is a failure of leadership/management in these cases. If I have someone who is performing the job as I’ve described it to them, and is actually meeting my set standards for acceptable levels of performance, yet their performance of their responsibilities is insufficient in some way, then it is axiomatic that I have failed to define as acceptable the levels of performance that are sufficient to fulfill my need. If, conversely, I have described acceptable levels of performance and the person is not meeting them, and so my business needs are not being met, than I am failing hold this person to the standards I have set. The first mode means management fails to understand their business needs – they have become so disconnected from the day to day operations that they no longer know enough to define what they need and how they need it done. The second mode means management has become disconnected from what their employees are actually doing, or disempowered to respond to that. In either instance, management disconnect (or worse, disinterest) is at the root of the behavior, but almost none of the conversations about quiet quitting seem to want to acknowledge that.

    Now, that is one reason for quiet quitting, but it isn’t the one that most of the current conversations are focused on. No, most of the conversations about quiet quitting are a manifestation of rationalization 7 – a recurring theme in the discussions about is that it is literally a tit for tat practice; If management doesn’t care about you, why should you care about them (and their business)? Rationalizations aren’t ethical, of course – they’re excuses for unethical conduct. But the core of the tit for tat rationalization, and what makes it such a common and powerful one for people to fall prey to, is that it relies upon natural human vindictiveness, and common distortions of the golden rule (do unto others as they did unto you/others). Because companies and businesses have spent so very long mistreating their workers, in ways both great and small, with typically little punishment for doing so, it was inevitable that some/many workers were eventually going to decide being ethical to the company was no longer worthwhile – the relationship between employee and employer became antagonistic, and the standards of ethical behavior between two antagonistic entities is vastly different than those within a functioning society.

    Experientially, “quiet quitting” has suddenly become a thing that is being used as a topic to distract from looking at the core problems that are present in the labor force and workplace practices, and which are giving rise to the phenomenon. For instance, modern management practices have emphasized ‘running lean’ on core and support staff in favor of bloating middle and upper management roles, as Aaron noted above, while expecting fewer workers to perform the same amount of work (or more). This was always unsustainable, but the labor market was able to support it for a time, as most workers were able/willing to trade their mental health for their pay check. The pandemic and its response put massive pressures on most people’s mental health, and for many that has led to a new evaluation of what and where they are willing to damage it, and what they expect in return for that damage. Employers who are refusing to raise wages to compensate for picking up these burden are finding their employees saying “Well, then we aren’t picking it up.” Weirdly, employers who are raising wages, offering promotion paths, benefits, full time positions, and generally not trying to be squeeze their employees until they squeal aren’t generally encountering the same issues – but the danger of the conduct, as you point out, is that it spreads, and even non-exploitative employers find themselves unable to attract motivated individuals, because motivation stops being a thing.

    Similarly on the employee side, quiet quitting has become a conversational topic to try and make a virtue out of meeting minimum standards. Working to spec or job description is not some new and enlightened practice, as you noted Jack – it is and always has been about mediocrity, and accomplishing only what was necessary when you didn’t feel an employer would reward you for doing more. Employees who are acting as if this is something new or virtuous, as opposed to a way to punish employers for their unethical/exploitative past behavior, are simply deluding themselves. Worse, by discussing it as if it is a virtue, and not engaging in conversations about what they are doing and why with their employer, they risk normalizing what should be a corrective practice, and ignoring some of the corrective functions that already exist. The usual thing about “I leave on time and come in on time, because I won’t work unpaid” is a good example of this; there’s nothing inherently wrong or unethical about refusing to work if your employer is refusing to pay for it, but have you told your employer “this isn’t workable – I have 42 hours worth of work and only 40 to do it in. I need overtime to get it all done, or some of it to go elsewhere”? If the answer is yes, and they say no on the overtime, then you need to have them start talking about priorities – what needs to be focused on, and how that impacts the workflow of everyone. If they actually promise you overtime and then refuse to pay you, we have a tool for that (wage complaints), and social pressures (ie, telling customers/clients when things are bad, so they can tell corporate that they aren’t okay with standards being compromised the way they are).

    Side Note – something appears broken with the WordPress sign-in button for comments, because I can’t make it trigger. I get a hovering box over it that makes it literally impossible to click (the same is not true of the Facebook and twitter sign-in buttons). Had to come in from the WordPress interface side of things to leave the comment while logged in. Anyone else had issues with this recently?

    • … which apparently strips out paragraph breaks? Oh, that is decidedly unpleasant… I’m going to play and see if I can find a way to post this in a readable state.

    • Tim you have made some excellent points. There is a practice at some organizations to pay premium wages to increase the opportunity costs of slacking. It should also be pointed out that some managers are in the same boat as the rank and file worker such that some operations are insufficiently resourced by upper management and the manager has no authority to add workers. In those cases, the manager fills the void or takes unwise short cuts which increases long term costs. For many front line managers just getting by is sufficient. This lesson is taught to his or her subordinates. Given that many front line managers are elevated from the ranks, the cycle of just getting by is perpetuated.
      Just meeting expectations is not quiet quitting in my mind. To me, quiet quitting occurs when performance is sub par but the immediate costs or work associated with replacing the employee outweigh the costs of getting others to pick up the slack. This practice exacerbates the conditions that initiated the downward trend in productivity by the first slacking employee

    • Fantastic comment. Well reasoned and articulated. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I particularly liked your opening explanation of root cause from a leadership / management perspective. Your analysis demonstrates that this is indeed a complicated issue that changes depending on specific circumstances within different cultures and organizations.

  7. “zaidleppelin described quiet quitting as a rebalancing of expectations,”

    it seems to me that “rebalancing expectations” is another name for breach of contract. It means that my new wants are different than my old wants so I changed the contract without any negotiation.

    I realize that in this context we are talking about economic activities, but I believe this extends far beyond the workplace. From my experience, I often see people breaking prior commitments because something new arises that they consider a better opportunity for their time. I attribute much of this to a lack of respect for others and an oversized sense of self-importance.

    I believe one of the most important ethical values is fulfilling your commitments because trust cannot be had without people having the sense that promises made will be promises kept.

  8. Jack, I saw a reference to quiet quitting last week – I think on television – and wondered if it might make its way to these pages. I’m so glad it did. I am going to forward this page to my grandkids. All of them are teens and fortunately, all of them are hard workers, but this is a good reminder that there are forces around them encouraging laziness, cheating, and stealing.

    Well dissected!

  9. More books are written every year on the topic of leadership than perhaps any other, and yet poor leadership and bad management (not the same thing) remain the norm rather than the exception. As Jim Collins points out in his book “From Good to Great,” it is imperative to hire people who are the right fit for your organization. To do otherwise is to ensure that no one’s needs are being met, which invites a whole host of bad consequences.
    In today’s labor market, good employees are even harder to find than usual, and we see the outcomes of businesses hiring people who really don’t want to be there (the legendary “disengaged” workers) just to try keep the doors open. I think a lot of the sandbagging and “quiet quitting” are practiced by people that in times of more abundant labor would be marginally employed or perhaps unemployable. The younger generations are used to job-hopping and, right now, losing one job is no big deal to many of them.

    • poor leadership and bad management (not the same thing) remain the norm

      Crucial point, and thanks for making it. Many superb leaders are terrible managers, and vice-versa. Confusing the two has caused unimaginable carnage, disaster and tragedy.

  10. I don’t know about this. Job creep is real and things I said I would do to help out for a little while have now become my permanent job. These are things that should be done by other people that end up taking a lot of my extra time out of my visitations.

    I also get frustrated because people think because of my title I should just do them with no questions asked. Just last week someone who agreed to do something didn’t do it, then people looked at me to fix it. I had to send $30 of my own money to fix it, but if I said no, it would have somehow been my fault. I feel like I’m just enabling bad behavior.

    • You are, JP. This situation was the first thing my sister, a long-time government lawyer, talked about when I asked her about “quiet quitting.” The solution is real quitting, or open refusal to be exploited and the negotiation of fair conditions of employment. I know; easier said than done.

      • This reminded me of an old “Dilbert” strip where a visitor to the company asked, “How do you reward your top performers?” The answer: “We give them more and more work to do until they are only mediocre performers.”
        I have found myself in that situation a few times. I had a reputation for taking on tough jobs developing and implementing new projects and programs that few other managers were interested in doing, and the organization was not eager to see me hand off these programs after they were up and running. I occasionally found myself getting overwhelmed with accumulated responsibilities that were WAY outside my actual job description and scope of duties. In each instance, I went to my boss and explained why the “excess” duties should be handed off to some other bureau commander or division head (naming names). After I explained my plight, he always gave me some relief, and I was able to avoid doing 47 tasks poorly instead of managing my actual 20 areas of responsibility at a high level of proficiency (and I succeeded that boss upon his retirement).

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