Call it what you want, but ‘quiet quitting’ is not slacking off

The term “quiet quitting” is having a not-so-quiet viral moment in our public discourse about work. What started as a TikTok trend has become the subject of an increasingly divisive debate that sees many employees in favor of the idea and employers against it.

Despite what the misleading name may suggest, quiet quitting, as many have pointed out, has nothing to do with quitting, doing the bare minimum or slacking off at work. It is more a way to set boundaries at work and not do extra work outside one’s scope without fair compensation. Shutting down one’s laptop at 5 p.m. or saying “no” to doing someone else’s job may be how one chooses to quit quietly, but these examples are by no means prescriptive. However, even with this definition, many employers are objecting to the practice.

Despite what the misleading name may suggest, quiet quitting, as many have pointed out, has nothing to do with quitting, doing the bare minimum or slacking off at work.

In the backlash against quiet quitting, many employers are saying that going above and beyond is what moves employees up the career ladder and that not doing so can hurt one’s career. Canadian businessman Kevin O’Leary, of ABC’s “Shark Tank” fame, is one such vocal critic of the idea. He has called quiet quitting everything from “a really bad idea” to “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” claiming it is not conducive to success.    

What O’Leary and those like him — who are using this scare-and-shame tactic to dissuade employees from opting out of giving their all to their companies — leave out of their “career advice” is that when it comes to success at work, nothing is guaranteed.  

In 2019, I was a fresh graduate in Hong Kong, where I had moved from Taiwan to pursue a master’s degree, entering the commercial real estate industry. During my interview with the company I ultimately worked for, my hiring manager asked me if I was OK with working overtime.          

Without hesitation, I said, “Yes, of course!” And I meant it. I elaborated, highlighting that work had always been an important part of my life and that I enjoyed working hard because I derived a sense of accomplishment from it. So for the next year, I did just that — working day in and day out.

Regardless of when I entered the office, I rarely left on time. There were consecutive months when I was the last one to leave the office around 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m., and because I wanted to wait until I was done with work to eat dinner, all I could choose from was the McDonald’s menu — the only place still open when I got back to my apartment. Needless to say, I prioritized my work over my health, and on top of eating fast food regularly, I did not make time to go to the gym.           

I often worked on weekends, whether in the office or at home, and once I even worked over the weeklong vacation I took to visit my parents in Spain. Though I applied for my paid time off and got approval in advance, I found out as the dates neared that my vacation would be taking place during an important time for a project that a senior member of the team and I were working on.    

I often worked on weekends, whether in the office or at home, and once I even worked over the weeklong vacation I took to visit my parents in Spain.

As the committed worker I was, I volunteered to take advantage of the time difference to work on the project in the mornings and enjoy my vacation in the afternoons and evenings. I volunteered because I believed this was how I would prove my commitment and worth to the company and that I would eventually be recognized for it.  

When the time for promotions came, I was promoted. While I did feel rewarded for my hard work, seeing how many other people were promoted, including a colleague on my team who was noticeably clocking in fewer hours than I was and completing tasks past the deadline, made me feel slightly cheated. We chose different approaches to work, yet the result was the same.   

A few months later, after more overtime and making work the sole focus of my life, I handed in my resignation letter without another job lined up. I was unsure what I wanted to do; all I knew was that I no longer wanted to work for the company or in real estate for that matter, and I was willing to start over by relocating back to Taiwan, where I would have to take a title downgrade and pay cut.            

Like I said, there are no guarantees when it comes to success at work. While I no longer use any of the knowledge or skills I acquired in real estate during the two years I was in Hong Kong, that experience has shaped how I approach work. In a way, you can say that when I resigned, I also “quiet quit” hustle culture.

Now, as a content marketing professional in the tech industry (a huge shift, I know), I set boundaries not only to maintain more work-life balance but also to prioritize what I do each day at work. I ask for realistic lead times on projects, clarify roles and responsibilities, and practice asking for help and saying “no” when I need to. These boundaries help to focus my attention on doing what brings actual value to my company, allow me to rest and recharge, and keep me engaged with what I do. 

If this is quiet quitting, I take umbrage with those who say it is the same as doing the bare minimum or being disengaged at work. I understand that every workplace and every job has different demands and expectations. Nevertheless, taking steps to set healthy boundaries so one has more time for things in life other than work should not be this heavily debated, criticized or frowned upon. 

Setting these boundaries has allowed me to work smarter, not longer, while giving me time outside of work to explore other passions, like writing features and op-eds (such as this one). This does not mean I do not volunteer to do things outside of my work scope; I do when they interest me and help me with my professional development. And it does not mean I never have to work overtime; I still do, but very seldom and often with overtime pay.

I am committed to my job and strive to do well and contribute value in my role. But I will not go above and beyond the scope of these goals to do something that is not my job and that no one else wants to do — or, worse, something that is someone else’s responsibility — without compensation.​

Like the four-day workweek that has, quite counterintuitively, boosted productivity for some of the companies that have tried it, quiet quitting may be what employees need to reignite their passion for their jobs. How it works will differ from person to person, but it should not be conflated with not fulfilling one’s duties — or so easily written off.

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