Janet is a pharmacist who worked in person throughout the pandemic, enduring daily risk to her own health and a stream of abuse from scared, frustrated customers. For this commitment, she made less than 1% of the salary of her company’s CEO in each of the past three years.
Alex works in IT support. For several years, he actively tried to help improve his group’s efficiency and culture but found his ideas repeatedly ignored. When the pandemic hit, he figured management would finally listen to and act on his insights about how to keep virtual workers positive and productive. He was wrong.
Get Updates on Transformative Leadership
Evidence-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox monthly.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
Like millions of other Americans, Janet and Alex eventually concluded that what they were getting out of work — be it their financial compensation or a sense of control or respect — didn’t match what they were putting in. They were, in short, giving more than they were getting, so they decided to scale back their efforts. Janet still does her job well, but she won’t stay late or take extra shifts. Alex still handles the same volume of support calls, but he has stopped speaking up or investing effort in coming up with potential improvements.
Apparently, this makes Janet and Alex “quiet quitters,” a fuzzy term meaning either doing a job’s bare minimum or no longer trying to overachieve. I’m not doubting that this is happening a lot these days. It’s been happening for decades among employees who are disengaged and disillusioned with their jobs.
What I’m bothered by is the label: Quitting seems like a decidedly derogatory, adversarial term for situations like these. Why not call Janet and Alex calibrated contributors — employees who are rationally matching their effort to what they get in return?
The notion of calibrated contributing would recognize that Janet and Alex are simply trying to enact their views of fairness or balance, having concluded that their employers and our laws in the U.S. aren’t going to do that for them. Their choices illustrate equity theory’s core prediction about motivation.1 Put simply, equity theory says that fairness is a relative judgment — the ratio of what one puts in and gets out compared with some relevant other’s contributions and rewards. When the comparison a worker makes leads to the conclusion of “This isn’t fair,” they can either try to get more (such as a pay raise or increase in benefits) or, when that’s not possible, give less (stop working late or helping coworkers, for example).
One common comparison a U.S. worker might make today is how their own situation differs from that of people who held a similar role in the past; another is to compare themselves with the most visible people — the few at the top getting a huge share of the pay or accolades that the collective workforce has earned. Considering the following facts, a person isn’t lazy, selfish, or a “quitter” just because they’ve concluded that something needs to change.
- The federal minimum wage, adjusted for purchasing power, is at its lowest point in 66 years. A worker paid today’s minimum wage earns about 25% less (in inflation-adjusted terms) than what workers earned when the rate was last raised in 2009, and about 40% less than those paid the minimum wage at its 1968 high point.
- CEO pay relative to the average worker’s pay has skyrocketed in recent years, unchecked by global recessions or a pandemic. At America’s lowest-paying companies, the ratio of CEO compensation to median worker pay grew again in 2021, to 670%.
- The percentage of income received by those at the very top, whether measured by the Gini coefficient or any other proportional statistic, is at its highest level in the U.S. in many decades and continues to climb. Income inequality in the U.S. now reflects levels traditionally seen only in economically undeveloped or extremely corrupt countries.
- In 2021, unions — which help individuals collectively negotiate better pay and working conditions — represented only 6.1% of the U.S. workforce, the lowest percentage since at least 1955.
- There has been no significant federal legislation strengthening workers’ rights to better terms of employment in decades. Decades after nearly every other advanced economy adopted paid medical leave for events like childbirth, we still have no such requirement. Similarly, the U.S. has one of the lowest levels of paid vacation among advanced economies and no federal law requiring that companies provide it.
There has been no significant federal legislation strengthening workers’ rights to better terms of employment in decades.
In addition, describing some of what’s happening today as calculated contributing or equating one’s effort would address another thing many have been lamenting about the term quiet quitting — namely, that it makes doing what’s in your job description sound like a moral failing or a basis for getting fired. In my field, this reflects the distinction between in-role and extra-role behavior, where the former describes what you are expected to do based on your job description and the latter describes the kinds of discretionary behaviors that represent going above and beyond those requirements.2 While we’ve generally found that extra-role (or “citizenship”) behaviors are good for both organizations and individuals — for example, that organizations are healthier when people voluntarily speak up with ideas, or that employees who take on extra tasks are more likely to get promoted — we’ve also assumed that people wouldn’t get fired for failing to do what, by definition, was extra.3
These days, though, it seems that in addition to providing less to many workers than in the past, many organizations — and those of us who write about them — are comfortable also expecting more from workers without question. This “job creep” means that if you’re not performing 125% of your job description, you haven’t done a complete job.4 This distorted logic allows us to use terms like quiet quitting when people are doing exactly what they were formally hired to do.
To be clear, I’m not saying there are no lazy or entitled employees who’ve always done the bare minimum. Nor am I saying that some people haven’t chosen to give less of their energy to work for reasons having nothing to do with the feeling that things are somehow unfair. Global labor markets and technological shifts have fundamentally changed the value of some jobs in U.S. dollar terms, and working from home does lower productivity in plenty of cases.
However, we should be more precise in how we’re describing what’s happening, because language is itself a source of power, and it affects how those with power respond.5 Let’s reserve negative labels for those who don’t, by choice, do their in-role job descriptions but still expect full pay and benefits. And let’s continue to celebrate those who go above and beyond for their extra-role efforts and citizenship behaviors. But let’s stop using any version of the word “quit” to describe those who are doing their job description, just not more.
Beyond being more accurate and more respectful toward millions of workers, the term calibrated contributing could focus those in charge on doing a better job diagnosing and improving what has been a huge employee disengagement and disillusionment problem for decades. Those would be positive additions to the steps some leaders and organizations are already taking to better understand and meaningfully address employees’ needs and frustrations. And it would certainly be more constructive than reminding employees that a “loud firing” or “great reckoning” is coming soon.
1. J.S. Adams, “Inequity in Social Exchange,” in “Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 2,” ed. L. Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1965), 267-299.
2. L. Van Dyne, L.L. Cummings, and J.M. Parks, “Extra-Role Behaviors: In Pursuit of Construct and Definitional Clarity (A Bridge Over Muddied Waters),” in “Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 17,” eds. L.L. Cummings and B.M. Staw (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1995), 215-285.
3. N.P. Podsakoff, S.W. Whiting, P.M. Podsakoff, et al., “Individual- and Organizational-Level Consequences of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 94, no. 1 (January 2009): 122-141.
4. L. Van Dyne and J.B. Ellis, “Job Creep: A Reactance Theory Perspective on Organizational Citizenship Behavior as Overfulfillment of Obligations,” in “The Employment Relationship: Examining Psychological and Contextual Perspectives,” eds. J.A.M. Coyle-Shapiro, L.M. Shore, and L.E. Tetrick (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004), 181-205.
5. N. Fairclough, “Language and Power,” 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2013).