The Value of Hard Work

Published on September 13, 2022

The “quiet quitting” headlines are click-bait, but the decline in social mores regarding work ethic still have negative implications.

According to a Gallup poll of over fifteen thousand workers surveyed in June, up to half of all employees in the United States can be characterized as “quiet quitters.” 

This seems like a shocking and outrageous statistic. But in order to understand what is going on, one must go to the primary source rather than blindly accepting sensationalized news reports and inane social media chatter.

Gallup categorizes workers based on their level of engagement at work:

  • Engaged. Engaged workers are highly involved and enthusiastic about their work and their workplace. They drive innovation, have high performance standards, and are the people who move an organization forward. Gallup estimates that 32 percent of workers are engaged. 
  • Not Engaged. These workers are psychologically disengaged from work and their company. They put time into their work but not energy and passion. They basically punch the time clock, do the minimum called for by their job description and then punch out. Gallup has characterized this group as “quiet quitters.” 50 percent of workers fall into this category.
  • Actively Disengaged. These workers are unhappy and resentful. They act out their unhappiness and potentially undermine the efforts of their coworkers. They often talk negatively and destroy morale. This group represents 18 percent of workers based on the Gallup poll.

It is obvious that the 18 percent of workers who are actively disengaged are toxic and could be characterized as “loud quitters”. They are not shy about their dissatisfaction, and they often spread their attitude to others. Anyone who has been in the workforce for a while has encountered such people. There is not much ambiguity here.

It is equally clear that the 32 percent of workers who are actively engaged drive forward progress for their organizations. They must be retained and further developed. Any employer with good sense will foster an environment in which such people will want to stay and remain engaged. 

Where it gets murky is the 50 percent of workers who are not engaged. Can we call all of these people “quiet quitters”? Are they even quitters at all?

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon“all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Lake Wobegon is ludicrous because obviously the average person in any given society has to be average by definition. 

It seems to me that most of the people in the “not engaged” group are simply average employees — they are not stars and they are not going above and beyond their job description, but neither are they toxic and dragging down the organization.

The key question is this: Are the workers who are “not engaged” performing their job descriptions in the manner that was agreed to with their employer? Are they honestly producing the work output and putting in the time that they said they would put in when they were hired? If the answer is yes, then these people are performing their jobs. They are not “quiet quitters”. In contrast, if these employees are not doing their jobs or acting in a deceptive manner, one might characterize them as “quiet quitters”.

The remote work phenomenon has increased opportunities for employees to be deceptive about the time they are devoting to work. An extreme and shocking example of this was revealed in a Wall Street Journal article published last year about people who had taken multiple full time jobs on the sly. 

One could argue that workers should be paid purely on output and if someone can perform two full time jobs through part time work, the employer should not care. 

But the trouble here is the deception. 

No healthy organization can function in a culture of deception and honesty is an intrinsic good. Without trust, society begins to crumble. The same is true for an individual company. Distrust is like metastatic cancer. It will spread through an organization and cause dysfunction. I consider people who use deception to be “quiet quitters” even if they are technically performing the minimum requirements of their job because they are destructive elements within a corporate culture.

It is difficult to believe that even a majority of the fifty percent of employees who are “not engaged” are using deception or otherwise performing as poorly as the term “quiet quitting” would suggest. More likely, the vast majority of these people are simply unambitious. They are average employees doing an average job. 

I found the following graph from the Gallup poll revealing:

Source: Gallup

One might ask: Where’s the beef?!?

Where is the substance in all of the breathless headlines about quiet quitting being a major trend of the post-pandemic era? What I see is that actively disengaged employees have hovered somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent for decades and that more employees are engaged than the average this century! 

Although my initial reaction was to be upset about the idea of half of American employees being “quiet quitters”, I should have known better. 

Despite all of the problems of our society, most people are still fundamentally honest. Looking at the actual survey reveals that nothing much has changed. The great majority of workers are average. There is a small minority that are clear problems for their organizations. And there are the stars who drive progress forward.

Still, there is cause for concern in terms of the reaction to this story as it has been widely misreported. At least in the dystopian world of social media, there is plenty of chatter about how it is perfectly fine for employees to not only do the bare minimum but use deception if it suits their purposes. 

It has become more socially acceptable to take the attitude that one should only do the minimum justified by one’s current compensation package and not put in a minute more than required. But it is certain that ambitious people will often find themselves in jobs where they are providing value in excess of their compensation! 

Why is this the case? Those who wish to advance must prove their worthiness before they are rewarded with compensation and benefits. Almost by definition, that implies being “underpaid” for a period of time. Very ambitious people will be “underpaid” for their entire career, as they are always outperforming in their current job before advancing to the next one with more responsibility and more compensation. 

Of course, many people do not seek to advance in their careers, but it is still very important to foster a culture that celebrates honesty, hard work, and ambition. Ultimately, economic growth and increasing living standards for everyone depends on increasing the level that is considered average in our society. Social attitudes that pull the average down are pernicious and should not be celebrated.

To the extent that more people disdain going above and beyond the minimum, greater opportunities are created for ambitious people. The world is not a zero-sum game and delivering more value than you immediately receive in return is not something to be ashamed of. The rewards will come in due course.


This article originally appeared in the Rational Reflections newsletter and is free for all readers. To receive additional content, including in-depth business profiles, please consider signing up for a paid subscription. Thank you!

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The Value of Hard Work
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