Why ‘Quiet Quitting’ Is A Loud Call For A Better Social Contract At Work


Barry Rosen is CEO, Interaction Associates, leading provider of training & consulting services to build a collaborative leadership culture.

“Quiet quitting” has taken the internet and the human resource departments by storm.

The term, which was popularized on TikTok, refers to people rejecting explicit and implicit requests to go above and beyond at work: no more 40-plus hour work weeks, responding to emails on the weekends or performing tasks outside written and agreed-upon assignments.

The quiet quitting trend has advocates, detractors and bystanders who are equally curious and worried. For advocates, quiet quitting represents a conscious and healthy reordering of life’s priorities. For detractors, quiet quitting signifies various social ills, such as the decay of personal initiative and ambition or the paucity of worker engagement.

Whatever the values and biases of its commentators, quiet quitting challenges managerial norms and invites an informed response from concerned employers. Quiet quitting might even be a clarion call for a new social contract in the workplace—an agreement, both implicit and explicit, that governs the behavior of workers and managers.

The Root Causes Of Quiet Quitting

I believe the ingredients for a surge in quiet quitting have simmered together for several years.

For decades, wage growth has stagnated or been modest for many American workers. For many of those workers, I’ve seen that a rational calculus has been: “Why should I work harder without the guarantee of a meaningful increase in compensation?”

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More recently, the pandemic caused significant disruptions and changes in the daily routines of most corporate workers. According to a Gartner survey, 65% of employees say they agree or strongly agree that the pandemic shifted their attitudes toward the value of life outside of the workplace. Fifty percent said the pandemic changed their expectations of their employers.

Remote and hybrid work arrangements have enabled people to invest more time in hobbies, family time, local travel and other non-work-related activities. But even with more discretionary time, workers are reporting higher levels of stress and burnout.

When coupled with other worries, I believe these factors mentioned above have spawned a rebellion against the “work harder and get ahead” philosophy. For quiet quitters, putting in extra effort at work is not a smart way to realize potential, experience personal satisfaction or meet other important needs.

But, from my perspective, this conclusion is not necessarily true for all workers. For many people, the highest percentage of their waking time is spent working at a job. People want and need to experience success during their waking hours—whether through achievement, improving the way things get done or having meaningful relationships.

The beliefs and experiences that make the case for quiet quitting are also bad for business. Employee turnover is expensive, and actively disengaged employees—which one Gallup study said is 18% of the U.S. workforce—erode company culture, growth potential and long-term sustainability.

A New Social Contract At Work

How a leader responds to quiet quitting will have a significant impact on employee behavior and their organization’s ability to navigate market uncertainty.

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Here’s a practical response to a quiet quitting uptick: Establish a new or updated social contract with your employees. This contract is comprised of the understandings and agreements between you and your employees that set the foundation for mutual success. Below are five key “contractual understandings” that leaders should have with their team members:

1. We understand and agree on explicit and mutual performance expectations, including those related to work-life boundaries.

Ensure your employees know their measures of success and even agree on performance indicators and levels. This will help them do their jobs to the fullest without compromising their personal well-being.

2. We understand and agree on how we’ll support one another to meet those expectations.

Managers and direct reports can set one another up for success by asking, in general and by assignment, “What support do you need to be successful?” This approach helps both the manager and employee think through what it will take to get the job done and meet one another’s expectations.

3. We agree to acknowledge one another for meeting our respective expectations.

People like to know they are appreciated for doing a good job. It helps keep them on track. Positive acknowledgment is good food for the heart and head. Managers should ask direct reports if and how they are doing in supporting the employee in doing their jobs.

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4. We understand and agree on a safe and effective way to give and receive constructive feedback when we don’t meet expectations.

Managers and direct reports, from senior leaders through the chain of authority, should agree on the best times and ways to tell one another what they are doing well and how to do their jobs even better.

5. We understand and agree on how we stay in communication and connected on a regular basis.

Whether employees are working at a shared physical location, from their homes or at a remote worksite, it works best to schedule regular conversations with direct reports to check in on their well-being, provide guidance and ask, “What support would you like?”

A Better Social Contract For Working Together

The day-to-day experience of work remains in flux for most organizational workers as they learn how to behave in remote and hybrid settings. They are grappling with the question: What role does work-for-hire play in their lives?

Might this be a good time for you, as a business leader, to introduce a new social contract for everyone in your organization?

By adapting the guidelines above to your own business circumstances, you can proactively address quiet quitting and, just perhaps, turn the idea of a better social contract into an ambitious and satisfying reality for everyone. It’s a mission worth your time and attention.


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