Quiet Quitting and the Death of Office Culture

Ed Zitron 10 min read

I am sick, everybody. My tummy hurts, and I was sick yesterday, which was a Sunday. I wanted to sleep, but my stomach refused to let me, nagging me to get up. And this is exactly how I feel about Quiet Quitting, a term invented by bosses that refers to workers “only doing what they’re meant to at work” with a side helping of “finding their new work balance.”

But I want to be specific about what Quiet Quitting means and even more specific about how utterly disgraceful a term it is.

The Washington Post refers to Quiet Quitting as follows:

The term is a bit of a misnomer, because quiet quitters aren’t walking away from their jobs. Instead they’re renouncing hustle culture, quitting “the idea of going above and beyond at work,” as TikTok user zaidleppelin said in a July post that has amassed more than 3 million views and helped popularize the phrase. The trend is resonating strongly with those Gen Z and millennial knowledge workers fighting to rewrite the rules of the workplace.

The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, takes it a step further:

The phrase is generating millions of views on TikTok as some young professionals reject the idea of going above and beyond in their careers, labeling their lesser enthusiasm a form of “quitting.” It isn’t about getting off the company payroll, these employees say. In fact, the idea is to stay on it—but focus your time on the things you do outside of the office.

And in almost every single case of the Quiet Quitting discussion, the blame is firmly placed at the worker’s feet - this is something that workers are doing to steal from the boss by “not being enthusiastic” about “going above and beyond” at their work. The sarcastic commentary is almost always along the lines of “seeking a better work-life balance” and “rejecting hustle culture,” with the silent agreement that these workers are somehow villains that have given up on their beautiful bosses’ enterprises.

Quiet Quitting is not quitting. It is not “doing less.” It is doing exactly what you are paid to do, not taking on additional responsibilities, not working past your allotted hours, and being paid to do so.

I didn’t want to write about this subject because it’s one of the most obviously stupid and anti-worker terms I’ve heard in my entire career. Quiet Quitting isn’t about quitting at all, nor is it about doing an inferior job, nor is it about “rejecting hustle culture.” People just realize that, after two years of a pandemic where it was clear society respects businesses more than workers, a pandemic where hundreds of thousands of people were laid off while corporations reaped huge profits, their bosses and managers do not go “above and beyond” for them. Furthermore, it’s becoming alarmingly obvious to most workers that there is absolutely no meritocracy - working hard does not mean you’ll go far, and going above and beyond rarely, if ever nets anything other than free work for an uncaring boss.

What’s frustrating me is how many people are simply accepting this term on its merits without interrogating a single thing about the underlying concept, and it’s because of one very simple problem:

Nobody seems to be asking bosses what they think workers are not doing.

This simple little question is so important because not a single damn article on this subject seems to be concerned with the supposed damages of Quiet Quitting. Rich quote-hound Kevin O’Leary advised CNBC readers to “not quiet quit” their jobs, but there appears to be no enumeration of what exactly Quiet Quitting does, how it hurts companies, or how it hurts anyone. I can’t find a single place that defines the losses to businesses or a single boss or manager interviewed that has been asked “what is not being done because of Quiet Quitting? And why should they be expected to do it?”

This reminds me of the many panicked remote work articles I’ve savaged over the years that never asked the boss how many hours they spent in the office or what their day consisted of. Nobody could articulate why it was bad that nobody was coming into the office or what was lost beyond a vague comment about “company culture” and how “we’d lose serendipity” or something, usually said by people that don’t do any work or contribute meaningfully to the company anyway.

Quiet Quitting has become a similar panic because the media loves to pick up terms from TikTok, especially when they can take said term and turn it into something that suggests the existence of some generational laziness.

Salary Wars

Quiet Quitting is a natural reaction to the overwhelmingly unfair and unbalanced world of salaried work. The exchange we make for taking a salary is benefits, job security, and the idea that we’re “taken care of,” and for that, we agree to a yearly rate of income that sacrifices our right to overtime and hourly pay. Theoretically, this is meant to be a good deal for both sides - if we work a few hours here and there outside of the 9 to 5, our bosses don’t have to worry about extra compensation, but in return we don’t have to worry about being fired, because…oh, right, every single state in America has at-will employment other than Motana, meaning you can be fired at any time for any reason (including “no reason.”).

We’re also expected to go “above and beyond” at said jobs - by which I mean taking on extra responsibilities and extra hours - with the suggestion that said hard work will reward us. Except anybody that has ever worked in any job ever will know that it’s relatively rare that those who work hard are the ones that are rewarded - especially for people of color and women - and that those extra hours are usually rewarded with more work rather than more pay.

On top of this, we simply do not mentor or train people in the workforce anymore.

So, in short, there’s a far more compelling argument to say that executives are the ones Quiet Quitting - they’re the ones who have failed to create incentive structures for working harder and doing more, they’re the ones that have failed to create meaningful ways to grow in an organization, and they’re the ones that are now complaining that people aren’t working hard enough.

The Quiet Quitting panic is being spread because - just like the office - there is no compelling argument to be made to convince those “Quiet Quitting” to do otherwise. None of this is about “burnout” or “rejecting hustle culture” - it’s multiple generations realizing that there is no incentive to do more work than they are told to, because there is no reason to.

Quiet Firing

Let’s invert this entire situation. I am a worker at a company, hammering away at my keyboard as one does. I decide that I would like $100 - after all, I work at this company and feel like they should go above and beyond for me - and I tell my boss that I would like $100. When my boss asks why, I throw up my hands and tell them that this is a risky business, because they’re not going above and beyond for me.

Would this be, to quote Andy Levy, Quiet Firing? Are my bosses quietly firing me by not giving me $100, something I feel entitled to for some reason? Why aren’t they giving it to me? I work here, after all. My responsibility at my job is to do work, and their responsibility is to pay me for work - but I feel like I’ve done more work than usual, so where’s my $100?

If you’re confused after reading this paragraph, it’s because the logic is entirely spurious. I want $100 extra without having to justify myself - I simply decided that I want $100, and that my boss should give it to me based on the flimsy justification of “I want the universe to operate in this manner.” You may, rightly or not, think I’m being unreasonable asking for $100 without any real reason, but I want it, and if you don’t give me $100, you are quietly firing me.

This is the equivalent of what bosses are doing when they complain about “Quiet Quitting.” They are asking workers to go above and beyond what they are hired to do, with absolutely no justification as to why they’re doing so. And the media has once again failed to successfully interrogate the power structures in play, automatically switching to defending the powerful from the onslaught of workers realizing they’re being abused. The right questions to ask here are why this phenomena is so scary to bosses, and also what it is the bosses feel they are owed and why. Why do they get extra work outside of the allotted hours of the business?

This is a difficult question for bosses to answer because it is borderline impossible to answer without sounding evil. “You see, we are upset about Quiet Quitting because the person in question is doing their job, as opposed to doing more than their job. I am not paying them more for it because I do not want to, and as a result, they are bad.” The bosses that are claiming that Quiet Quitters will be “the first to get fired” need to be challenged directly with a question - what are these people doing wrong? What is being asked of them, and why is it reasonable to ask them to do so? Do you have any tangible examples of what that means, or are you just jumping at your own shadow like a dog barking at its reflection?

I just want to teleport into one of these deeply-reported panic articles and ask the bosses what it is they are asking people to do and what they are doing to change things. If you frame this as something being done to a boss or manager, you inherently assume that they have been fair and reasonable in their requests and expectations. Without interrogating what it is they are asking and what it is they are offering in return, you are acting as a willing stooge for the executive sect, reinforcing power structures that help enrich the already-wealthy.

Why do we never have a conversation about business’ responsibility for labor? Why is it always about how the worker is scorning the boss?

Specifically, Quiet Quitting suggests that workplaces are reasonable in expecting people to go above and beyond by default. Yet we never see national news trends about the continuing, tangible trends of worker abuse - there is never a consideration of who the actual victim is in these stories other than a vague suggestion that workers are stealing from their beautiful, wonderful bosses. Workplace journalism is always punching down, finding new ways in which workers will suffer if they dare fight for even an iota of respect or better working conditions.

The Death of “Office Culture”

The Quiet Quitting panic is just another form of victim-blaming and normalized abuse borne of an executive panic attack, and I’d argue it’s directly connected to the growth of remote work.

The office was a powerful tool to keep people in line - you were extremely visible at all times, middle managers kept track of everybody, and you were seen as a “hard worker” based on many conditions that didn’t relate to work at all. The panic around the death of Office Culture was never about the worker or their contribution, but the dissolution of the corporate police state, where your every move, how you dress, what you eat, how you talk, and the color of your skin could be evaluated and judged at every turn. You’d be afraid to talk negatively about your bosses or your working conditions because a middle manager could inform on you, and you couldn’t seem too stressed, vulnerable, or human because if you did, it would be noted and likely used against you.

Of course, that culture was powerful in keeping people doing things outside regular business hours. I remember old jobs where if I left at 5:30 PM, I’d get a look from a manager or a snarky comment in a team meeting about how “I had somewhere to be.”  “Hard workers” were those that got in early and left late, who play-acted how stressed they were, and seemed the most enthusiastic or “engaged” during meetings. Workers were incentivized to resemble a certain aesthetic the boss craved of a “good worker” that regularly did not connect to actual outputs, which repeated the dogma that “working hard got you places.”

Office Culture was (and is) just propaganda. It is enforced dogma that tells you what a “good worker” looks like and to not question whether the tenets of a “good worker” are exploitative. It’s much harder to question this kind of thing in an office because to do so exposes you to those participating in the dogma out of fear for their safety. And like religious dogma, it is regularly used to justify exploitative or abusive acts because it’s “all part of a bigger picture.”

The panic over Quiet Quitting is that bosses realize that they have used almost every mechanism to control and incentivize workers other than actually incentivizing them. Companies have been allowed to live lazily, failing to build out career paths within the organization while failing to pay anyone for extra work, making “going above and beyond” feel hollow outside of an office environment. Workers were incentivized to virtue signal their belief in the company dogma when their colleagues could see, but when you’re just on Slack and Zoom, who cares?

To be blunt, the problem is that companies do not want to make much of an effort with their workers. Bosses want to be religious leaders rather than actual leaders. Managers want to be productivity cops, ever-vigilant of anyone failing to contribute to the company while avoiding every reflective surface. Companies want to pay less and get more out of people, and do not understand that the easiest way to motivate people is to be there for them and show them you care by giving them money and treating them well. Why do you think people love unions? Is it because they love paying dues? Or is it because they rightly feel as if they want someone who actually gives a shit about them?

All of this meaningless, poisonous panic comes down to capitalism’s total misunderstanding of loyalty. One can unite people under a mission, and they can believe in that mission and work hard for that mission, but real loyalty is a two-way street. If you want people to work harder, give them a tangible reward for doing so - a clear-set path to progression in the organization or, indeed, money. If you want people to work harder, make it clear that they are rewarded for job performance, and be crystal-clear as to what the result of good job performance is.

Finally, companies need to go above and beyond for their workers if they expect them to do so for the company. This means, but is absolutely not limited to: accepting union contracts, being generous (and respectful of) paid time off, aggressively policing and isolating toxic management and managers, reducing micromanagement across the organization, being explicit with what’s expected and rewarding those who exceed it monetarily, and, when things are tough, treating people a little bit better than usual. Why? Because doing these things shows the workers in question that you’re loyal. This, in turn, means that they’ll go above and beyond for you, because you’ve shown that you’d do the same for them.

If you’re a boss reading that paragraph and you think I’m being unreasonable, please feel free to join me in the comments, I’m sure everybody would love what you have to add to the conversation.

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