These days it seems a new term catches hold on social media every few weeks to describe the current weirdness of the labor market.
First there was the “great resignation,” a term coined by Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, to describe the surge of Americans who were quitting their jobs a year after the covid-19 pandemic began. The phrase took off after Klotz used it in a May 2021 interview with Bloomberg, and Google searches for “great resignation” peaked the following January.
The media wasn’t done with labor market lingo after search interest in Klotz’s term subsided, though. In 2022 Zaid Khan, a tech worker based in New York City, shared a TikTok about “quiet quitting,” which he described as a rejection of “the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.” That term helped spur countless stories and think pieces about declining engagement among U.S. workers. After “quiet quitting” came myriad similar terms, including “quiet hiring,” “quiet firing,”and “loud quitting.” Just a few weeks ago “bare minimum Monday” started making the rounds in a new round of media coverage.
Experts who study language and management say there’s a reason we gravitate toward such terms during unstable or confusing periods. But relying too much on jargon can also do a disservice to workers and managers grappling with complex labor force-related challenges. Workplace leaders who are serious about addressing issues like employee engagement would be best served by forgetting about viral buzzwords, some scholars say, and instead focusing on their underlying causes.
“In times of great uncertainty, we grasp for things to make us feel more safe,” said Suzanne Wertheim, a linguist and author of a forthcoming book on inclusive language. Sure, Wertheim said, some practitioners or academics might simply want to take credit for coining a buzzy term about the labor market. “But a lot of people have this sincere desire to figure out what the hell is going on,” she added.
Wertheim has some experience using language to describe patterns in the workplace herself. In 2016 she wrote an article for Fast Company about “unconscious demotions,” a term she coined after interviewing a number of workers who described similar experiences of being mistaken for employees in a different line of work due to unconscious bias. She recalled a Latina venture capitalist who told her she was mistaken for catering staff, for example.
After the article was published, Wertheim said, many people shared similar experiences on Twitter. Ashley Mosley Dickens, a former Twitter employee, recalled being handed a plate to throw away at a tech event, presumably by an attendee who assumed she was employed as a service worker. More recently Dr. Amy Heffernan, an Australia-based chemist, recounted being continuously asked if she is a student, even though she leads and secures funds for her own academic work.
“Once there was a name for it, people understood their experiences retrospectively,” Wertheim said.
Though new terms can serve a positive purpose, Wertheim said she’s been disappointed to see “quiet quitting” inflated by the media and corporate leaders to connote something negative.
When the term first took off in Zaid Khan’s video, it was framed as a decision by employees to set healthy boundaries in their workplaces. Khan, 25, said he learned about “quiet quitting” through a YouTube creator, @Katherout. At the time he had been working in tech for three years and “was starting to feel the disillusionment of working in that industry, and working in corporate America in general.” The covid-19 pandemic, he said, was an opportunity to reflect on whether he wanted to center his life around his job.
Initially the message of Khan’s video seemed clear. Quiet quitting, he said, can also be seen as “acting your wage,” another term to describe doing only the job you’re paid to do, rather than going above and beyond with work that won’t be compensated. But as older generations got ahold of the term, “they really twisted it into something much bigger,” Khan observed.
Shortly after Khan’s video went viral, the author Ariana Huffington wrote a LinkedIn post dismissing the term, suggesting workers consider “joyful joining” instead. Kevin O’Leary, an investor and host of ABC’s Shark Tank, told CNBC he believes quiet quitting is “a really bad idea.”
Wertheim, who also studies the employee experience, said such takes had the effect of inflating “quiet quitting” into something that wasn’t really reflective of reality. Though the term made sense initially, as the pandemic helped employees put into perspective the time they were giving to their companies, it quickly came to suggest these workers were slacking off.
“There was this idea that employees were cheating employers out of the labor that they deserve,” Wertheim said. “Which is really not what a lot of people were doing.”
Terms like “quiet quitting” put new labels on phenomena scholars have been studying for years, said James Detert, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. In fact, Detert co-authored a paper back in 2008, titled “Quitting before leaving,” that detailed factors driving employees to become psychologically detached from their organizations.
Quiet quitting and the spinoff terms it inspired “are reflections of the perpetual, underlying tension between management and labor,” Detert said. And while both employees and managers have legitimate concerns about productivity and work-life balance, using inflammatory buzzwords to describe these tensions makes it harder to address them, he added.
Rather than “quiet quitting,” Detert has proposed the phrase “calibrated contributing” to reflect what is often a rational choice by employees to perform the job they’re hired for, and nothing more than that. He said he hopes this sort of thinking might shift the narrative to focus on managers’ duty to reconsider how they’re treating employees in some cases.
When company leaders see issues gain attention in headlines, it can spur them to make decisions that are “optics-positive” in the short-run, but not take the time to think deeply about the underlying causes of employee dissatisfaction, Detert said. HR teams may well spend years on serious efforts to improve their workplaces, whether developing more meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion programs or helping workers become more satisfied in their jobs. Those efforts are challenging, he said, but they’re also a better use of companies’ time than zeroing on any one buzzword that’s trending.