For most, a contract of employment (or similar written terms of employment) and job description will set out the terms and conditions of the working relationship with their employer.  Among other things, it will include the individual’s contractual hours of work and may include the scope of their duties.  So what is the issue if a worker does everything their contract requires them to – no more, no less?

Well, for some employers, that is not enough. 

Collins’ definition of quiet quitting is: “(noun) the practice of doing no more work than one is contractually obliged to do”. 

This directly battles the culture of the “grind” – working as many hours as possible to achieve “success”.  While this is not a new trend, it has become somewhat glamorised in recent years, particularly on social media, where displaying one’s wealth and expensive possessions as a result of working more than is required or expected, at the expense of a more balanced lifestyle, has become more sought after. 

Quiet quitting is the antithesis of this.  It is the “movement” of workers doing exactly what their job descriptions say and working the hours that their contracts provide and no more.  Rather than working additional hours, or checking and responding to emails outside of working hours for no additional pay, it is about prioritising a healthier work/life balance and spending more time on self.  While not necessarily a new phenomenon, social media has spread the “hashtag” and encouraged others to follow.

There are examples where working additional hours/performing additional duties is rewarded by an employer, for example, performance-based incentives or paid overtime.  However, for many workers, going above and beyond is not acknowledged, let alone compensated, so why bother?  On the other hand, quiet quitting being an act of empowerment is not a belief that is universally held. 

Some say that quiet quitting is doing the bare minimum; almost a lazy approach – it does not encourage pushing one’s self and is the act of settling for mediocrity. 

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  For years, employers have benefitted from workers’ determination to “do more” and work hard to show their worth.  There are mutual benefits in a meritocracy but what about those workers that work incredibly diligently and loyally for no obvious (additional) reward? 

This is a trend that has gathered a lot of traction, particularly post-pandemic, where individuals are reassessing their entire way of working, not just where they work, but how much and how long compared to their other pursuits.  Quiet quitting can also be used as a form of protest and we may see more acts of it in this economic climate if employers are not awarding pay rises.  Actually leaving the employment may be less feasible for employees from an economic point of view, so quiet quitting may be the only realistic alternative to employees.

The issue for employers is how do they deal with those employees who are quiet quitting?  Can an individual be placed on a performance plan or dismissed for “only” doing the hours and duties set out in their contract/job description?

Quiet quitting alone is unlikely to create a breach of contract by the individual, but what if their employment agreement asks them to work their normal working hours “and such additional hours (without further pay) as are necessary to perform their duties”.  Does the failure to work those “additional hours” create a breach of contract, or other ground for termination?  Where does the line get drawn?

What should employers do?

There is no right answer that will fit every situation and each case will turn on its own individual facts. In many cases a job description does not set out all the core duties of the employment and so it will be difficult for employers to make out that the employee is working in breach of contract.  However, there are steps that can be taken by the employer when faced with quiet quitting:

  • Employers may want to redefine the core duties of their staff to ensure that everything is covered.
  • The utilisation of appraisals and other measurable performance metrics are likely to be key in ascertaining how an individual is performing.  That should be the basis for a determination on an individual’s performance, rather than purely on how early they start their day and what time they finish.
  • Managers should be trained on how to give positive feedback in appraisals.  If the employer does decide to carry out a performance review or even to take steps towards terminating the employment, then there has to be evidence that the employer has indicated to the employee where their performance is lacking.
  • Communication with employees should be undertaken.  If employees feel supported by their employer then they may be more likely to go above and beyond their role.  This will also help employers understand an employee’s concerns and explanations to feeling burnt out.

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