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The Moneyist: ‘The backlash to quiet quitting smacks of another attempt by the ruling class to get workers back under their thumbs:’ Am I wrong?

Dear Moneyist,

I have something to get off my chest. Please bear with me.

We learned a lot from the (more than) two years of pandemic life. Among those lessons: 

1. We can be really effective and productive working from home.

2. When working at home it’s easy to end up working constantly which can lead to burnout and worker dissatisfaction (hello, Great Resignation).

3. It’s important for workers to draw personal and professional boundaries. 

When I read this story about “quiet quitting,” I was struck by the way people who were interviewed were doing the things that we have been encouraged to do and have encouraged our employees to do: work reasonable hours, don’t work on vacation and strive for work/life balance. 

The featured “quiet quitters” had been experiencing serious physical and mental-health problems associated with their jobs, and now, after setting some boundaries, are overall happier and healthier people and effective employees. “I still work just as hard. I still get just as much accomplished. I just don’t stress and internally rip myself to shreds,” one said. 

“‘What is your take on quiet quitting? Are employees falling asleep on the job? Or are they doing something that they should have done a long time ago by putting their career in its proper place?”

The purpose of this story seemed to normalize a toxic work environment where people sacrificed themselves and their families in exchange for the chance for their employer’s approval. 

This follow-up story about the quiet qutting “backlash” is filled with quotes from bosses who mourn the death of “hustle culture” and say quiet quitters sell themselves short, and a lead quote from sleep enthusiast Arianna Huffington, who says these people are “quitting on life.”

This backlash to quiet quitting smacks of another attempt by the ruling class to get workers back under their thumbs. 

So, Mr. Moneyist, what is your take on quiet quitting? Are employees falling asleep on the job? Or are they doing something that they should have done a long time ago, by putting their career in its proper place?

Sick & Tired of Being Sick & Tired

The Moneyist: ‘Quiet quitting is a perfect example of showing management that there is a third way — an alternative to slacking and clock-watching.’

MarketWatch illustration/iStockphoto

Dear Sick & Tired,

At the beginning of the pandemic, I made a promise to myself: ‘Don’t worry about things that are out of your control.’ I wore a mask and did everything that was asked of me. I worked from home. I went for walks around the reservoir in Central Park. And, yes, I got dug into work. This was a unique time, and we needed to knuckle down, and cut through the misinformation for our readers.

And yet I was also “quiet quitting” — and I didn’t even know it. How do I know that? Because while my engagement with my job was high, my stress levels were surprisingly low. Some days, I probably worked too many hours. On other days, I paced myself and took regular breaks, and finished my day at 6 p.m. sharp. That wasn’t a contradiction. It was a balance. And a healthy one.

But there was a shift: I still loved my work, but my job no longer became a God-shaped hole — something that gave me value or an identity, and distracted me from all the other great things in life. Today, I need contact with people more than ever, inside and outside of work. All the other stuff — from office politics to the extraneous factors that typically vex or obsess us — took a backseat. 

Quiet quitting does not mean skiving off. It doesn’t mean that people are unionizing in a “work to rule” fashion. It doesn’t even mean only doing exactly what’s in your job description. It means not letting your job become bigger than you or the things that matter to you: family, friends, downtime, our favorite childhood hobbies that we drop when we begin our working lives.

“‘Quiet quitting does not mean skiving off. It doesn’t mean that people are unionizing without officially being in a union. It doesn’t even mean logging off regardless of deadlines.’”

I asked Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University and prominent remote-work researcher, for his opinion on quiet quitting. He says companies must shoulder the responsibility for the emergence of this trend in the first place. “Broadly, I think quiet quitting is more of an embarrassment for the firms this is happening to,” he said.

“The big learning from the pandemic is that for work-from-home employees you need good performance-evaluation systems,” he added. “When employees are in the office you can see if they are working at the desks, typing or in meetings with colleagues. At home you can’t see this and we really don’t want creepy surveillance software as it is nasty and invasive.”

Bloom said companies need to look at their own systems for reviewing an employee’s performance so both parties feel respected and trusted. “This means evaluating employees regularly in 360 reviews — outputs in terms of sales, reports, presentations, client volume and so on, to provide strong monitoring and incentives for employees to work hard and efficiently.”

“If an employee can only achieve 50% performance in a job and nobody notices it, that’s pretty embarrassing for the firm,” he added. “Employees going public about this should not be shamed — this is the classic shoot-the-messenger reaction. The firm needs to tighten up its performance review process as for every quiet quitter there are no doubt another 10 quiet slackers.”

“‘At home you can’t see this and we really don’t want creepy surveillance software as it is nasty and invasive.’”

— Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University

Next up, I put your question to Tessa West, a New York University social psychology professor with a particular interest in workplace behavior, and author of “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.“ Quiet quitting should generally be seen as a healthy development, she told me, but she added, “It is a misuse of a term that really means carving out boundaries.” 

The problem, West said, is that people are quiet quitting in two ways: “The first is more identity based. It means working less in an effort to buck the cultural phenomenon of hustle culture. The people who identify as quiet quitters often wear it on their sleeves. It’s about a declaration of the type of person you want to be —and that will be brought with you from job to job.”

The second is more reactionary to your specific job, West added. “It means giving the boss the middle finger for demanding, somewhat arbitrarily, that they can’t work from home — or some other demand they think makes no sense.” This kind of quiet quitting is counterproductive, she added, stemming from a lack of communication that goes both ways, and also a lack of trust.

She sees the latter as problematic. “It reminds me of stonewalling in close relationships — you’re mad at your partner, so you shut down, cross your arms, refuse to make eye contact and refuse to engage. It’s one of the biggest predictors of divorce. And bosses don’t like being stonewalled. And perhaps the boss deserves it, but that doesn’t matter.” In this case, West concluded, nobody wins.

“‘The beauty of quiet quitting is that it will mean different things to different people. It’s about rightsizing our career and managing our workload in a smart and effective way.’”

So quiet quitting requires soul searching by both workers and employers. Companies that want to turn quiet quitting into a battleground for the hearts and minds of employees should learn to quiet quit — because they don’t realize that there is room for valuable, substantive work without the nervous tension that work often brings, and without the “them” versus “us” state of mind.

A company that wants to quash the “quiet quitting” phenomenon doesn’t understand the value of a fully-present, engaged employee. It’s a company that doesn’t get that employees are people, not minions that must be squeezed and micro-managed. Similarly, an employee who says, “Not my problem” at 6:01 p.m. is not someone who understands they are part of a team.

Quiet quitting is a perfect example of employees managing up, and showing companies that there is a third way — an alternative to both slacking and clock-watching. I hope it’s a wake-up call to companies that their staff need time and space to exhale, and not bring work home with them, or sacrifice their sanity, leisure time or mental health so a company can meet its targets.

The beauty and the challenge of quiet quitting is that it will mean different things to different people. Quiet quitting will not turn a good employee into a bad employee, but it may turn a bad employee into a more checked-out employee. Ideally, it’s about rightsizing our jobs and approaching our careers in a way that helps us become happier human beings, and more successful employees. 

We get to draw a line between the two, and acknowledge the difference. 

Learn how to shake up your financial routine at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in New York. Join Carrie Schwab, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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