How a sense of belonging can end “quiet quitting”
A bit of a misnomer, “quiet quitting” is when an employee does only the minimum necessary to keep their job. No going the extra mile, little enthusiasm. While “quiet quitting” has received a lot of media attention — and there are certainly historically significant nuances driven by working through a global pandemic and profound economic uncertainty — it’s not really a new trend. It’s the modern-day equivalent of worker disengagement.
An influential Gallup poll indeed shows that the proportion of employees that are engaged has dropped (from 35% to 32%), and the proportion of employees that are actively disengaged has increased (from 13% to 18%) since pre-pandemic 2019. However, both the percentage of engaged and actively disengaged employees is nearly identical to what it was 20 years ago, according to the same Gallup polling data. Which is to say, abysmal.
The real problem is that with the exception of a brief positive trend in engagement from 2013 to 2019, less than one-third of employees have been engaged at work. So should employers be concerned about “quiet quitting”? Absolutely. “Quiet quitting” is a valuable concept because it gives us a collective vocabulary for a deeply felt problem in today’s workplace: disengagement at work.
In a tight labor market, they are being able to engage employees’ matters even more than usual because great employees have options and will leave. And they have. Voluntary quit rates remain at a 20-year high, while layoffs are near all-time lows. (There’s some evidence that quit rates are also happening faster — what commentators have labeled “quick quitting” — though there isn’t enough data to say if this is a lasting trend.)
How to re-engage employees
Improving employee engagement is not a quick fix. You’re not going to be able to put together a retreat or bring in a motivational speaker and call it a day. The good news, however, is that we know from decades of research what works when it comes to increasing employee engagement. Not coincidentally, these are the same things that increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our recommendation is to create a strategic plan that focuses on improving four key areas:
- Clarify (fair) expectations.
- Provide equitable growth opportunities.
- Teach managers inclusion skills.
- Foster opportunities for belonging at work.
Clarify (fair) expectations
Lack of clear job expectations and significant raise and promotion criteria have long plagued organizations and driven disengagement. But after two-plus years of pushing employees to step up and adapt at work amid a global health crisis, now is an especially good time to give all employees true clarity about what is expected of them. That means your job descriptions should match the core competencies needed to perform the role, and those competencies should be reviewed and rewarded in raise, bonus, and promotion decisions.
These expectations should be fair and compensate people for their work. If you ask or expect some employees to step up and take on extra responsibilities that benefit your culture, like planning events and celebrations or serving on committees, that work should be made explicit and compensated. Women, especially women of color, are more likely to take on such unpaid culture-building work, and they are sick of it.
Employees should also know what they need to do to advance. When they don’t, they leave. For example, a 2022 McKinsey and Lean In report found that having a strong sense of fairness and opportunity were the biggest predictors of employee retention.
Provide fair opportunities for growth
Advancement doesn’t necessarily mean getting a promotion. Business needs often mean that not everyone can be promoted. But everyone can grow and learn in their job. And a vast amount of research shows that employees crave growth and learning opportunities. For example, a Workday Peakon study of millions of employees found that employees who said they didn’t have growth opportunities were much more likely to quit within nine months.
The key to introducing growth and learning opportunities is to ensure that they are equitable. Don’t just give growth opportunities like coaching, mentorship, or stretch assignments to people that leadership has already identified as stars (these are often people who look very similar to the current leadership due to similar-to-me bias). Research shows that organizations benefit most when learning opportunities are democratized and given to those least likely to be on leadership’s radar, including underrepresented employees.
Teach managers inclusion skills
Similar to offering equitable opportunities for growth and learning, good management, which includes caring about your employees as people, need to be applied equitably. It’s not enough for managers to have good relationships with some employees. In fact, researchers studying employee turnover have found that employee turnover is highest when managers have great relationships with most of their team but not all of their team. That scenario is actually worse than having just okay relationships with your whole team. The key is for managers to be able to connect with all their team members.
Fostering connection is a skill that can and should, be taught, starting with understanding how an individual’s identities can impact their experiences at work. Evidence shows providing managers with management training is highly effective. Invest in advanced manager training that encompasses why fostering inclusion and belonging is important for engagement and teaches the behaviors (like leading inclusive meetings, soliciting all voices, building equal relationships, etc.) of inclusion.
Foster opportunities for belonging at work
Employers may feel like belonging isn’t their business. But, in fact, belonging is a basic human need, and our needs don’t stop when we arrive at work (even less so when “arriving” simply means turning on the computer at home). If you want engaged employees, providing opportunities for belonging is in your best interest. This can include opportunities for colleagues to connect as human beings, like icebreakers, events, retreats, affinity groups, and cross-team collaboration.
Once again, it’s paramount that you take diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously when designing these opportunities. It’s much easier to feel like you belong when you are in the majority, or your life outside of work fits into the norm. It’s much harder when you’re a member of an underrepresented or marginalized group and may feel you need to hide important parts of your identity to fit in. Work events scheduled in the evening and centered around alcohol, for example, may not appeal to parents with young children or people who don’t drink for religious or other reasons.
When done well, investing in employee resource groups is a highly effective way to promote belonging. ERGs create community spaces for colleagues from an underrepresented or historically marginalized group to connect across their shared identity. And remember, you should fairly compensate the leaders of these groups if it’s outside the scope of their core role.
“Quiet quitting “can be avoided through a strategic focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. It’s a matter of prioritizing this work and creating a long-term strategic plan to make it happen. If you believe employees should go above and beyond the bare minimum of their job, then DEIB isn’t a “nice-to-have”; it’s a must-have.
Liz Kofman-Burns, PhD, is a sociologist and co-founder of the DEI firm Peoplism. She has over a decade of experience studying and implementing high-impact DEIB solutions. At Peoplism, Liz and her team have partnered with dozens of companies, from the Fortune 500 to start-ups and non-profits, to measurably increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace. Previously, she helped translate research on bias in hiring into software at HR tech start-up Talent Sonar. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Inc., TechCrunch, SHRM, Behavioral Scientist, and others. Liz has a Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA. Photo by Jimee Sechinbaatar.