Quiet Quitting Isn’t Harmless… Action Steps For Eliminating Toxic Employees Who Consciously Under-Work

“Silent team killers” who purposely reduce their workload hurt productivity, customers, and revenue. So they are far from harmless. In fact, I call these slackers “silent team killers.” Their selfish decision to reduce their workload will crush the morale of even the strongest teams. A recent Gallup survey indicates that these disengaged workers have accounted for at least 50% of the US workforce since 2002. And if you question the high costs of keeping one of these Quiet Quitters on your team.

Realize that Zappos and Amazon have calculated the dollars of damage that they can do to the organization to be so high. In order to eliminate them, they have paid up to $3000 to induce these under-committed employees to leave. Another company, Trainual, offered $5000 for its disenchanted new hires to quit. Embark even offered a shocking $10,000 for each employee that wasn’t “right for their job” to quit.

The marketing company Gorilla has recently come up with an approach that encourages Quiet Quitters to actually leave, but on a happy note. Employees can quit, receive a 10% raise, and search for a new job for up to three months. And finally, forget any notion that Quiet Quitters are hard to identify. Everyone on their team, especially the top performers, knows who they are. They wonder why no one has done anything about these toxic employees.

The “Quiet” In Quiet Quitting Should Stand For… The Tremendous Damage That They Quietly Create

There are 3 primary areas where Quiet Quitter employees (abbreviated as QQ) will directly damage your team and company. They include: 

  • Negative business impacts – I estimate that each Quiet Quitter employee (or QQ) may consciously produce as much as one-third less output than the average employee and 50% less than a top performer. In addition, you can expect a reduction in important business results, including innovation, missed deadlines, underserved customers, higher error rates, and lost revenue
  • Negative team impacts – their decision to do less work was conscious (some even brag about their decision to coworkers). The negative team impacts you can expect from this form of toxic employee will likely include lower collaboration, team engagement, morale, spirit, camaraderie, and cohesion. And because others will need to pick up the work that the QQ slacker consciously doesn’t do. Also, expect the rest of the team to be overworked, frustrated, and more likely to quit (in fact, research by Cornerstone OnDemand revealed that “good employees are 54% more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee”). Also, realize that constantly prodding and managing these toxic employees will also take up a great deal of their manager’s time that could be better spent elsewhere. 
  • Negative culture and employer brand impacts – and finally realize that if you have enough of these QQ employees. Together they will harm and dilute your corporate culture. They will damage future recruiting when top candidates hear that they are tolerated and your external reputation as a desirable place to work for top-performing candidates. Negative recruiting and retention impact will increase even further if your company’s tolerance for quiet quitters appears on social media, like glassdoor.com. Or on TikTok, where publicly admitting to quiet quitting is now a major trend.

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The Essential Action Steps To Follow

Worker productivity in the US has recently experienced its steepest drop since 1948. There is increasing Shareholder pressure to view workforce productivity measures as a metric indicating excellent management. So to me, it now makes more sense to closely look at quiet quitting as a major contributing factor to those lower productivity levels (workforce productivity can be measured by dividing your number of employees by your total yearly company revenue). It’s also important to realize that even though the phrase “quiet quitting” is getting a lot of publicity. It is not a new phenomenon. In the past, these individuals that consistently performed only the minimum amount of work were called “slackers, slouches, coasters or RIPs” (Retired In Place). So learn from the successes and failures of other industry-leading companies. Consider the following dozen action steps to include in your data-driven QQ prevention plan (if you operate in a union-free environment). So learn from the successes and failures of other industry-leading companies. By considering the following dozen action steps to include in your data-driven QQ prevention plan (if you operate in a union-free environment).

  • Build a compelling business case – Build a compelling business case – without a compelling business case. It would be naïve of you to expect your executives, HR, and team managers to support the changes needed in order to stop quiet quitting. So work with your CFO to put together a business case that is quantified in dollars. And be sure it covers all the actual dollar costs of keeping your Quiet Quitter employees. Make sure that those estimated costs include customer impacts and the fact that top performers on the team will become highly frustrated. They have to tolerate and make up for the work that was not done by each QQ. 
  • Grow a pair – I’m not attempting to be subtle here. You must assume that HR resistance to firing will be a huge problem. Expect HR to blame the cause of quiet quitting on literally dozens of things, except, of course, the manager and the individual QQ employee. In addition, expect them to resist any changes in performance measurement, posting performance data and not giving QQs multiple chances to change. So instead, follow this critical advice: bypass HR and go directly to the COO and ask them to sponsor your Quiet Quitter reduction plan.
  • Identify the jobs that are commonly held by QQs – most of the quiet quitting employees are likely to be working in a handful of jobs, most of which are often hourly. So at least initially, identify and focus on those high QQ jobs and the managers that oversee them.
  • Reward managers and employees for performance results – it’s critical that each manager be directly rewarded for high team productivity and punished when it is low. Start by rewarding each targeted manager for high employee productivity (the value of their team’s output divided by the labor cost). Also, fix or remove those managers who can’t meet the productivity standard or consistently hire and retain quiet quitters. Also, if you have the authority, stop rewarding employees in QQ jobs with “show up pay.” So rather than paying them strictly by the hour. Make sure that some portion of the employee’s pay is based on the volume, quality of their work, and positive work behaviors.
  • Require Managers to continually measure individual performance – start with the essential assumption that any good manager must know how to measure the individual performance of each job on their team. So require every QQ impacted manager to come up with a process for quantifiably measuring individual worker performance for each QQ job. That measurement process must include both performance volume and performance quality. After the quarterly performance of each worker is calculated. The manager must create a ranked performance list covering all team members in a particular job. Most importantly, widely distribute this rank performance list. So that everyone on the team working on the job knows where they stand in the performance ranking. Obviously, all those consistently ranked in low performance need to be talked to in order to determine if this is a case of purposeful slacking or, instead, a lack of skills and training. 
  • Focus on hiring the self-motivated – the first critical success factor in QQ management is not to hire slackers in the first place. Because during my research, I found that in a majority of cases, the quiet quitters were that way when they were hired. And they weren’t created after they took the job. Fortunately, the required hiring adjustments are relatively straightforward. 
    • Get all recruiters and hiring managers to formally commit to exclusively hiring self-motivated people in common QQ jobs. 
    • Next, increase the hiring of self-motivated workers. Do that by adding a hiring step that identifies self-motivated candidates. Use the “hire for attitude and train for technical skills” strategy. 
    • During your early discussions with applicants, make it abundantly clear to every applicant that might work in a QQ job. It is “perfectly okay not to put forth maximum effort in your job, but you just can’t do it here at our company.”
    • Begin identifying the self-motivated by asking each candidate, the employee referring them, and each reference to provide their own ranked list of the candidate’s motivators. Look for those that list “doing great work,” “making a difference,” and “self-starter” at the top of each of their ranked lists (details on how to do that can be found here).
    • Next, realize that peer interviews have also proven to be effective tools for identifying potential slackers.
    • Also, tweak your reference checking process to ensure that it accurately identifies candidates with a history of QQ behavior.
    •  I’ve also found that you’re less likely to hire a QQ employee if you rely on two sources – referrals from top-performing employees and a boomerang rehiring process focused on hiring former top performers. 
    • Finally, realize that both Zappos and Southwest Air have purposely designed their hiring process so that they can proactively spot attitude problems when their candidates are interacting with employees outside of the interview process. 
  • Vigorously utilize your new-hire probationary period – even the very best hiring processes have a significant failure rate. So throughout the onboarding process, look for new-hire attitudes that might indicate that you made a QQ hiring mistake. And then throughout their probationary period. Consciously track the performance and the work behaviors (like tardiness and absenteeism) of all new hires in QQ jobs. Then terminate those probationary employees immediately when you spot anything more than a hint of QQ behavior.
  • Identify your current QQ employees – the key to identifying each of your current Quiet Quitter employees is to make everyone responsible for identifying them. Start by asking your team’s top performers to point them out anonymously. Also, look at individual performance data, error rates, absenteeism, and even performance appraisals in order to identify them. Next, look at customer complaints and incidents reported to HR to ensure that you identify every one of them. Finally, in this era of remote work, realize that every remote worker must operate with extensive performance and results metrics.
  • Give the QQ employee “a single chance” to fix their problem – start by determining whether the employee’s low performance is a result of a lack of skills or training. However, if it’s an attitude problem, realize that giving QQ employees multiple opportunities to change their attitude is a mistake. Instead, when a QQ employee is identified, give them only one chance and one month’s time to fix their performance and work behaviors. And if the performance of the QQ doesn’t improve to above average before the end of that month. Don’t hesitate and begin their release process immediately. Obviously, also look out for any negative impact that your QQ process might have on diverse employees.
  • Quickly terminate each “single chance” QQ employee – within one week after your fix-it effort fails. Prohibit the QQ employee from returning to work, even if their actual termination occurs later. And if you foresee significant legal issues with their termination. Consider paying them to leave if they give up their right to sue.
  • Consider automatically dropping the bottom 10% – fortunately, in the past outstanding leaders like Jack Welch at GE and Steve Case at AOL. They became famous in part because they came up with a structured “release the bottom performers” process for eliminating the lowest performers. Obviously, you can’t use this process unless you give your bottom-performing employees sufficient warning. You can do that by distributing the forced rankings of your top and bottom performers in a particular job each quarter. In fact, Costco once posted a report detailing the volume and the quality of each individual’s cashier’s performance. By name. And where every customer could see it.
  • After their release, only hire a self-motivated replacement – after you have terminated a QQ employee. Take “failure analysis” steps to figure out how this individual got by your self-motivated hiring standard. And then redouble your efforts to only hire self-motivated replacements for at least the vacated QQ jobs.

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And Finally, Don’t Expect Tweaking The Job To Solve The QQ Problem

Many in HR will try to tell you that quiet quitting is caused by a variety of changeable factors like poorly designed jobs, overwork, and job burnout. However, I have found that in most cases, the problem is primarily with the employee’s inherent slow-to-change attitude and not with the job itself. Therefore, I urge you to postpone any major job redesign effort until you have updated your hiring process so that the team’s jobs are only filled with self-motivated employees. In my experience, I have found that most Quiet Quitters, unfortunately, have a sense of entitlement. So after your job redesign, most will somehow find a new excuse as to why they shouldn’t once again put forward their maximum effort.

If you can only do one thing – ask a few hiring managers that frequently hire for hourly jobs to add an element to their hiring process. Ask each finalist candidate in each of the references to force rank their work motivators. Next, make a note of those hired candidates that don’t have self-motivated or work for a purpose among their top motivators. And then check after 6 months on the job. See how many of those with low self-motivation rankings have actually turned out to be Quiet Quitters. If it’s a significant percentage, get everyone to agree that you need a quiet quitting plan. 

Final Thoughts

Some have argued that today’s candidate recruiting pool for most QQ jobs now has a higher percentage of slackers in it. And that would mean that more candidates will have an entitlement mentality. Or they will slack off because they don’t really need this job because they have the option of living in their parent’s basement. However, despite any overall increase in candidates with an attitude. Recruiting leaders must realize that to fill the needs of your company, there are still more than enough available quality self-motivated candidates available. Especially if your recruiting leaders have the courage to identify and recruit the best self-motivated employees that are working across the street at your competitor (spotting them is especially easy in the retail and restaurant industries).

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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