Quiet quitting – a post-pandemic trend?

The first Covid-19 lockdown spurred the “Great Resignation” having triggered a shift in the way that many viewed the world of work.  A significant number of workers reassessed their priorities and voluntarily quit their jobs.  However over recent months, workers have continued to re-evaluate their perspective and a new phenomenon has emerged - “quiet quitting”. 

The term refers to employees doing only the minimum they need to do to satisfy their work obligations.  We consider some of the key legal issues associated with quiet quitting. 

You’ve identified a quiet quitter. Is it allowed?

It depends. If an employee is carrying out the minimum level of work required of them, they might not be breaching their contract. By many standards, they’re just ‘working’ not quiet quitting. Employers can strengthen their position on this by including detailed job descriptions in employment contracts and setting clear expectations for the proper performance of the role, avoiding an argument over whether something is outside a worker’s job description. 

However, there may be situations where an employer will want to consider taking formal action against a quiet quitter which may include issuing written sanctions or dismissing them for conduct or capability reasons (two potentially fair reasons for dismissal).

For example, some employment contracts expressly require staff to carry out additional work outside their contracted hours during busy periods for no extra remuneration. Employees are also subject to implied terms, including the duty to follow reasonable orders. A quiet quitter’s refusal to do so could amount to a breach of contract and an employer may decide to instigate a disciplinary process for misconduct as a result. 

In a capability situation, for example where a quiet quitter is failing to meet targets, it may be appropriate to follow a performance management process first to seek to help the individual to improve before considering whether further disciplinary action is required. 

In every case, the employer’s own policies should be consulted and a fair procedure must be followed to minimise the risk of any dismissal being unfair. Employers should also be alert to any potential health issues which could be affecting performance as reasonable adjustments may be required.

Preventing quiet quitting

A hangover of post-pandemic working can be lack of team engagement, often exacerbated by a remote working environment. However, remote working should not in itself be a barrier to engagement.  In person “water-cooler” conversations where colleagues can check in on each other and create a sense of belonging and a shared purpose can be replicated and encouraged in the virtual environment through more frequent and more meaningful catch ups with line managers and informal team meetings where all employees are encouraged to contribute. 

Team culture should evolve over time and the starting point may be to evaluate whether, post pandemic, management techniques have adapted appropriately and are fit for purpose.  Targeted management solutions can boost morale and increase employee wellbeing.

Maintaining strong lines of communication while nurturing engagement also allows managers to more quickly identify quiet quitters and address the problems that may arise. 

The harmful effects of employees quiet quitting mean that added pressure may be placed on motivated employees to pick up the slack. Additional support with wellbeing and enhanced reward, whether financial or non-financial, may be required to retain those employees impacted by quiet quitting.

Winds of change ahead?

Whilst many employees continue to prioritise work-life balance, some employers may start to tighten their reins in response to current market pressures. As global recession fears grow and redundancies loom, employees may begin to reassess how they want to be perceived by their employer. Will we see the balance of power reversed to the pre-pandemic position? 

Thanks to Cressida Shaw for her input in writing this article.