Quiet Quitter: How to Manage this Type of Employee

By Lisa Stam

The pandemic has taken its toll on workplaces. Employees are no longer prepared to ‘take it’ for the collective team at the expense of self-care and family, and employers are stretched on time, budgets and bandwidth as everyone settles into the new post-pandemic era. There is currently a disconnect between what is ‘the job’ and the ‘above and beyond’ parts of the role, resulting in a fresh wave of communication gaps and misunderstandings in the workplace.

Why Employees are Only Now Quiet Quitting
Workplaces are currently in this perfect storm of disconnects and job evolution because of post-Covid-19 lockdown recoveries; mental health awareness; relentless 24-7 phone and technology access; the online digital economy offering options beyond hourly wages, prompting people to re-evaluate their labour contribution generally; and the impact of remote/hybrid workplaces, with employees trying to set work boundaries that ‘leaving the office’ previously provided.

How to Determine if Employees are Quiet Quitting
So, how do you know if an employee is in the midst of quitting quietly? And can you fire someone for not showing up with all the enthusiasm they used to have?

First, employers will want to acknowledge some basic employee legal rights. These include the right to overtime pay, clarity and specifics on what they’re contractually compensated for, and to engage in side gigs that don’t interfere with work.

Employers do have certain basic employment law rights, such as the right to require an employee’s full-time attention during designated work hours and that specified benchmarks of the role are met, with consequences if they aren’t, as well as the right to seek out and reward enthusiasm, hard work and extra effort. (Just make sure the ‘extra’ is ‘extra’ and not actually core requirements of the job.)

There are plenty of examples of people quiet quitting, from shutting down at 5:01 p.m. to refusing to come to Friday night drinks to skipping meetings deemed unnecessary by the employee.

The Best Ways to Manage Quiet Quitting Employees
Once you’ve identified the situation and done some good company navel-gazing about whether your management style is keeping up with modern approaches, here are six practical tips to start turning things around.

1. Provide clarity on after-hours expectations.

2. Review one-on-one and group meeting obligations. Are they meaningful? Are they preventing focused work time that leads to resentful after-hours work?

3. Clarify what is ‘work’ and what are optional extracurricular activities.

4. Acknowledge the impact of inflation right now.

5. Make work more meaningful (not just perky fun).

6. Ask your employees.

How to Discipline a Poor Performer
There’s a difference between simply meeting the requirements of the job (quiet quitter) versus failing to do the job (poor performer). If, for example, an employee is not meeting the expectations of their role, not doing parts of their job description, failing to attend work during expected hours or generally behaving in an insubordinate manner that is impacting the business, an employer can discipline the employee.

Employers do retain the right to manage the workplace. This has not been diminished because of quiet quitters. While employers can no longer expect employees to be grateful for simply having the job, particularly in this labour market, they do have the right to address performance issues and employees are required to meet the communicated benchmarks in order to keep the job.

Once a missed benchmark is identified, an employer can start down the path of progressive discipline, typically in these five steps.

1. Have a conversation around job expectations, pointing to the tangible, actual requirements that have (hopefully) been set out in some form of a job description. Simply having a discussion to ensure assumptions are eliminated and everyone is on the same page will likely clear up many situations.

2. If benchmarks are still not being met, you can move to a performance improvement plan that sets out specific expectations with consequences attached should they not be met.

3. If the issues appear to be more deliberate insubordination, such as constantly showing up late with no explanation, and less skill development like struggling with project management or analysis skills, moving to a verbal warning letter may be more appropriate.

4. If the misconduct is repeated after receiving a verbal warning, you can move to a written warning to state the consequence of any continued or similar behaviours.

5. After the conversations, repeated warnings and genuine attempts to have the employee meet job expectations, you can terminate for cause. But it is critical that several clearly stated and understood warnings be given in advance, and that the pattern of behaviour is similar to misconduct.

In the vast majority of cases, employers in Canada will find it easier and more cost-effective to fire without cause with a decent package rather than fight the uphill battle of providing evidence, sufficiently comprehensive progressive discipline, and facing the scrutiny of clear job descriptions and workplace culture around expectations and ‘going above and beyond.’

As long as the labour market remains tight for many employers, employees will continue to have leverage for the near future. Inflation and a volatile economy will likely level things out at some point but for now, the quiet quitters have some good bargaining chips, particularly in more traditional workplaces that have not kept up with the degree of clarity, matched expectations and direct engagement required to keep talent.

Lisa Stam is the founder and managing partner of SpringLaw. Lisa practices all aspects of employment, labour and human rights law, and has a particular interest in legal issues involving technology in the workplace. She can be reached at [email protected].

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