Comment Of The Day: “Verdict: ‘Quiet Quitting’ Is Unethical. Next Question?”

[The caption on perhaps my favorite Charles Addams cartoon reads, “We never could have done it without him.”]

I thought that the essay on “quiet quitting” would spark a good discussion, and when I think that, I’m usually wrong. This time I was right, and among the excellent comments was this Comment of the Day by Tim Hayes, who focuses on the crucial aspect of the issue that I barely touched on at all: the responsibilities of management.

Here is Tim’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Verdict: “Quiet Quitting” Is Unethical. Next Question?”…


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 to 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, 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 burdens 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).

One thought on “Comment Of The Day: “Verdict: ‘Quiet Quitting’ Is Unethical. Next Question?”

  1. I recall when my contract was changed unilaterally from the legally mandated 40 hr week to a legally mandated 37.5 hr week.

    Hourly rate wasn’t changed, and in a new clause, up to 5 hours unpaid overtime was compulsory.

    Overtime after that was only permitted by written mandate, and was compensated for by equivalent hours of time off in lieu, to be taken at the company’s convenience. Somehow, it was never convenient of course, and the hours expired within a year if not taken.

    Shortly thereafter, employment laws were changed to eliminate the worst of the abuses.

    In such an environment, working strictly to rule is mandatory. It’s inefficient, stupid, bloody minded, but if not adhered to the next step is for wages to be withheld by employers if they can do it without consequence.

    Employers who act ethically have the right to have employees who go the extra mile. Those that don’t do not.

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