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Quiet quitters setting themselves up to fail, risk being laid off

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Quiet quitting simply makes it easier to determine whose head is going to roll

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By Howard Levitt and Peter Carey

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There’s another term now added to the post-COVID employment lexicon. In addition to the “hybrid-workplace,” the “Great Resignation” and the “Great Retirement,” the latest term du jour is “quiet quitting.”

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It has received considerable recent media attention and been defined in a number of (similar) ways, which all boil down to the idea that an employee will do no more than is absolutely required.

Some commentators have indicated that the concept is an extension of the trend toward work-life balance. Others have observed, more poignantly, that such behaviour is not conducive to career advancement.

We are of the view that it is decidedly damaging both to employees’ careers and their emotional and psychological health.

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As an illustrative tale, consider the story of one of the brightest people Peter ever knew, a friend in high school. He studied engineering science at the University of Toronto, one of its toughest programs. He aced all of his courses in mathematics, physics and circuit theory and graduated at the top of his class. He got a job at a major industrial concern. While employed as an engineer, he was assigned projects to complete along with a suggested timetable for completion. Here was the problem. This friend was ahead of his time (this was about 40 years ago). He would be provided an assignment with a timetable of, let’s say two weeks. Because he was brilliant it would take him only five to six hours to complete the task. He then spent the rest of his time reading comics (seriously) or engaging in similar frivolity. He was engaging in quiet quitting without even knowing it.

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After about two years he commented to Peter that he was annoyed because his less-brilliant colleagues were getting promoted and he was bored sitting around most of his time not actually working.

He had stumbled onto one of the great truths in life. You only get out of something (school, work, relationships) what you put into it. If you are determined to put in as little as possible, that defines what you will get out of it: as little as possible. As a footnote, having discovered this great truth, Peter’s friend then went on to have a great career.

Quiet quitting was the essential dogma of unions in post-war Britain, an approach that essentially destroyed that country’s manufacturing sector. Howard worked at a couple of unionized jobs in Hamilton, Ont.,  at Stelco Inc. and the cemetery, putting himself through school. Any hard work was punished by the union “brothers” so as not to show others up.

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Let’s face it: Unless you are in the fortunate position of inheriting wealth, you have to work for a living. Quite frankly, even if you are born into wealth, working probably makes you a better person. One only has to look at the Royal Family to see what generations of indolence have produced.

Since you have to work for a living, do yourself a favour: put something into it.

We are not pollyannish enough to suggest that everyone has a job that they love. Sometimes you just have to pay the bills. However, you will benefit your career, even if it is just for money, by being, dare we say it, enthusiastic about your job.

This will help you psychologically as well. If you really hate your job such that you really can’t muster any enthusiasm, then you need a new job. However, if you do your best with enthusiasm, then you might find that your job isn’t as bad as you thought.

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I have a sneaking suspicion that the same individuals lobbying to work from home are more likely to contemplate quiet quitting.

Regular readers will be aware that we are not fans of working at home. It is bad for the employer and the employee.

Your employer need not have a reason for firing you (as long as it is not discrimination prohibited by human rights legislation). They don’t even have to tell you why they are firing you. Generally speaking, all an employer has to do is pay you whatever severance you are entitled to and you are gone. So, if you are a seldom/never seen employee who puts the least amount of effort into your work, guess who will be the first to be fired when it comes time to reduce the workforce? And, on the flip side, guess who is not going to get promoted or given a raise? The other truth is that great employees get headhunted and get great references. Quiet quitters don’t. That also will affect your finances and psychological equanimity.

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Some commentators have suggested that quiet quitting will somehow “transform” or “redefine” the workplace. They don’t understand the real world. It won’t. It will simply make it easier to determine whose head is going to roll.

One of the great truths in employment law is that that the employer generally has more power than the employee. Employees will not transform the workplace by doing as little as required. But they may transform their position in the workplace, to their great detriment.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Peter Carey is a partner at Levitt Sheikh. 

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