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Quiet Quitting May Raise Legal Issues

April 19, 2023by Barbara Flynn0

By Allen Smith, J. D.

Quiet quitting remains prevalent, but employers should look for underlying causes rather than assuming employees are lazy, said James Reidy, an attorney with Sheehan Phinney in Manchester, N.H.

Speaking Feb. 27 at the SHRM Employment Law & Compliance Conference 2023, he noted that the underlying causes for employees who work just to the letter of their job description may result in legal claims.

What Is Quiet Quitting?

Approximately half of the workforce are quiet quitters, Reidy said. Employees who identify as quiet quitters often think of themselves as setting healthy boundaries, he added—a view particularly common among young workers.

Quiet quitters may:

  • Limit their time in the office.
  • Refuse overtime.
  • Not promptly respond to e-mails or texts.
  • Lack initiative.
  • Not encourage others to work.

Some employees object to the term “quiet quitting,” finding it offensive, he added. They might prefer the terms “work/life balance,” “reverse hustle,” “workforce disassociation,” “morale-adjusted productivity” or “turtling”—keeping to themselves and slowly moving along.

Reidy joked that quiet quitting might also be called “bare-minimum Monday” or “full-coast Friday.”

Causes of Quiet Quitting

Regardless of what it’s called, quiet quitting has costs in workplace productivity and overall engagement.

He said that causes of quiet quitting might include:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A realization that life is finite.
  • Toxic workplaces.
  • Lack of engagement.
  • Drama-filled days.
  • Lack of workplace flexibility.
  • Lack of communication.
  • Burnout.
  • Ineffective complaint procedures, which Reidy called “a big one.”

Legal Issues

Quiet quitting may result when an employer fails to respond to unlawful discrimination, harassment, safety concerns, wage theft or whistleblowing, Reidy said. Or it might be the result of an overbearing manager, he noted.

In addition to having effective complaint procedures, employers should be sure to listen to and observe their employees. Investigate complaints promptly to address problems, he recommended.

If there’s nothing under the surface and an employee is quiet quitting anyway, it may be time for progressive discipline or termination.

Shifting the Narrative

Reidy said ways to change a quiet quitter to a more positive performer may include:

  • Make managers accountable for quiet quitting.
  • Engage workers one employee at a time.
  • Fully leverage wages as an incentive.

Employees have a role in ending quiet quitting, too, Reidy said. They might, for example:

  • Speak up if they have complaints.
  • Identify one thing they love at work.
  • Maximize their skills and productivity.
  • Make a friend at work.
  • Take breaks to avoid burnout.

The pandemic caused seismic shifts in the workforce that may take at least three years to overcome and return to a new normal, Reidy predicted. Nonetheless, “quiet quitting may have been a symptom of something bigger,” he said.

Barbara Flynn

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