TikTok and the background to "quiet quitting"
Research by Aviva this year indicated that work-life balance is the most important factor for respondents when deciding where to work. What does this have to do with TikTok? Earlier this year, a series of videos emerged on the social media platform promoting the benefits of “quiet quitting” jobs. In general, these videos advocate rejecting a “live-to-work” attitude and embracing a “work-to-live” ethos instead. The videos have spread to other social media platforms, reportedly influencing younger workers who, post-pandemic, want a better work-life balance.
What is quiet quitting?
The definition of quiet quitting is somewhat nebulous (arguably unsurprising for a concept with an origin in a social media platform best known for dances and life hacks). The clearest definition probably comes from the workplace consultant Gallup, which says that quiet quitting entails employees “not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description.” In other words, employees who quiet quit will do the bare minimum to complete their jobs, but will withhold any additional labour perceived as discretionary.
Notwithstanding the recent focus on quiet quitting, it doesn’t appear to be a new phenomenon. According to a Gallup poll, the number of so-called quiet quitters today, ie employees who are neither “engaged” nor “actively disengaged” with their work, is broadly in line with equivalent figures from 2000. That said, it’s clearly a topic that has captured people’s imagination. One mooted cause of today’s quiet quitting is the related phenomenon of “quiet firing”. Loosely defined, quiet firing is where managers negligently/wilfully manage employees poorly with the intention of creating a hostile environment in order to get them to leave the business.
Reported “signs” of quiet firing include:
- Lack of feedback or guidance,
- Denial of promotion opportunities without adequate reason/explanation,
- Managers failing to attend meetings or mistreating employees in meetings,
- Employees being given unsatisfactory shift patterns or working time, or
- Employees being given lower-level tasks.
Quiet firing is said to relate to quiet quitting because an employee being quietly fired might become despondent with the business or their role within it. They may effectively “leave” their job by quietly quitting, perhaps before finding new employment.
Some of the videos online emphasise that an employer can’t discipline an employee for only sticking to their job description and working minimum hours only. This is not necessarily the case, as set out below:
- There is an implied term that employees must follow reasonable and lawful management instructions. These may include performing work outside of normal hours where there is a good business reason. An employee can legitimately be disciplined for misconduct if they wilfully don’t follow such instructions.
- An employee’s contract may well expressly require them to work additional hours for the proper performance of their role. A failure to do so could amount to a breach of contract, again potentially warranting disciplinary action.
- Employees may fall below required performance standards if they quietly quit, potentially giving an employer grounds to manage employees’ performance under a formal performance process. If, following a fair process, there’s no improvement, the employee can potentially be dismissed on the grounds of capability. For more on managing performance, please see here.
“Quiet firing” also carries key risks for employers:
- Most obviously, the employer risks a potential constructive unfair dismissal claim if conduct towards an employee breaches the implied term of trust and confidence (for more on this see here).
- An employee could have a claim for harassment or other discrimination if their manager’s conduct relates to a protected characteristic. This could be brought while someone is still in employment, or in conjunction with an unfair dismissal claim, for which there would be no cap on compensation (for more on harassment please see our previous blog here).
- Creating a hostile environment could aggravate, or lead an employee to develop, a mental health condition. If the employee qualifies as disabled under the Equality Act definition, the employer would be under obligation to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate disadvantage caused by the disability and to not discriminate on grounds of disability. If the conduct causes mental health issues, this could also result in a personal injury claim.
What should employers do about quiet quitting and quiet firing?
Clearly both quiet quitting and quiet firing can harm an employer’s culture: quiet quitting could disincentivise other employees to go above and beyond, and quiet firing could mean failing to develop talent and follow proper, fair procedures. So here are a few suggestions for what employers can do about it:
- Encourage your staff to talk: If staff feel able to raise issues about their work satisfaction candidly, including in relation to pay, hours, relationships with colleagues, you may be able to nip satisfaction issues in the bud at an early and informal stage. If you can’t agree to an employee’s requests, for example for a promotion, explain why.
- Look out for patterns: Keep a close eye on exit interview records, employee satisfaction surveys, social media / LinkedIn posts that could identify issues that might lead to quiet quitting.
- Mental health: If employees are struggling with their mental health, consider ways to support them. Referring them to occupational health is likely to give you more information about how you can support. We provide further guidance in our blog Supporting mental health in the workplace.
- Appraise your managers: To guard against slipping managerial standards, effective appraisals in which direct reports are able to give honest, constructive feedback, are key.
- Take action: Some issues may well be relatively easily resolved through existing mechanisms. For example, an employee “quietly quitting” because they feel like they don’t spend enough time with their family may wish to make a flexible working request.
- Start a formal process: If quiet quitting is proving an issue in your workplace and it is not possible to resolve it via informal means, it is possible (as set out above) to deal with such behaviour under a formal disciplinary or performance process. However, care and consideration should be taken before starting along this route to ensure that the behaviour warrants such action and that a full and fair process is followed.
With many thanks to Alex Evans, a current paralegal in our Employment team, for co-authoring this blog.
If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Tabitha Juster or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2022