What is quiet quitting?

Quiet quitting is hardly a new feature of the workplace, but it’s been given fresh energy thanks to TikTok. Nicole Kobie explains what it is and what employers should do about it (if anything)

See if this sounds familiar: you’re feeling a bit done with work, so you phone it in – you’re still ticking off the requirements of your role, but no longer going above and beyond.

We’ve all been there, we’ve seen Office Space – “I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working,” says one character – so it’s hardly a new work trend, is it? But it’s been given a new name: “quiet quitting.”

What is quiet quitting?

Quiet quitting is a practical response to frustration at work and an inability to immediately quit. Got passed over for a promotion? Given piles of dull work? Treated poorly by a manager? Workers might fantasise about stomping into a boss’ office to shout it out, but most of us lack the power in our working lives to actually follow through on such dramatics.

Instead, we spend lunch hours scrolling recruitment sites and applying for new jobs, hoping to find a better role before actually quitting – bills need to be paid, after all.

That term was coined by TikTok career coach Bryan Creely, who, in his mid-40s, is not a member of Gen Z. He used it in response to an article about “coasting culture” that referenced another similar concept from 2008, “quitting in place.”

Other terms to describe the idea include “leaning back” – a play on former Meta exec Sheryl Sandberg’s “leaning in” – “lying flat” and “anti-ambition”. These latter three are centred on the death of hustle culture.

Work to rule

In labour movements, what TikTok calls quiet quitting is a form of industrial action known as “work to rule”. Here, staff all agree to only do exactly what their contracts dictate and nothing more. Quiet quitting is the individual, spontaneous version of work to rule. 

Workers have this power because their employers so often ask their staff to go above and beyond by default. Research reveals Brits work an average 22 days worth of overtime each year – none of that paid. That free labour is handed to managers and companies because they ask nicely and employees are earnest and enjoy their jobs.

When that is no longer the case – perhaps for a perceived slight, perhaps over legitimate concerns – doing the “bare minimum” reveals the value of that employee and the extra work they do.

Indeed, that phrase, the bare minimum, is inherently negative. It suggests there’s something lazy or mean about doing the work listed in your contract, and not working extra hours or taking on additional tasks. But really that should be the norm, with long hours and additional work the deviation – or, as TikTokers say it, “acting your wage”.

Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Taking on an extra task here and there helps keen employees show their enthusiasm and learn new skills to earn that promotion, and no readable contract could adequately describe most roles. Managers and their workers need to figure out what’s fair between them.

What should managers do about quiet quitting?

What can managers do to avoid this situation? Be fair to employees and keep lines of communication open; if a worker is unhappy but feels empowered to drop into your office to have a chat, they may well choose that rather than sulking at their desk.

But also recognise that sometimes people need to pull back a bit. In personal relationships, it’s referred to as “giving each other space”.

An employee might be passed over for promotion for legitimate reasons – the other candidate was superior, for example – and “quiet quit” for a few weeks until they get their groove back. Some may never recover without you stepping in to uncover the problem and address it – and it’s your job as manager to find ways to motivate your staff.

Also realise that many people feel burned out at work, from long hours, or “rusted out”, from dull tasks. A stint of “quiet quitting” may just be the break they need to recover and get back to their productive ways. If so, this is an ideal point in that cycle for a manager to take steps to avoid burn/rust-out from happening again.

Don’t expect staff to be always on, and don’t punish them for having a more relaxed week, whether it’s a result of quiet quitting or just exhaustion. If they’re sufficiently doing the role you pay them for, you can hardly complain, after all.

Nicole Kobie
Nicole Kobie

Nicole is a journalist and author who specialises in the future of technology and transport. Her first book is called Green Energy, and she's working on her second, a history of technology. At TechFinitive she frequently writes about innovation and how technology can foster better collaboration.