Kyra Leigh Sutton, Ph.D., is an HR expert and faculty member in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. Views are the author’s own.
We’ve all heard about quiet quitting, that trendy phenomenon in which employees stop going above and beyond at work. A Gallup poll suggests that at least half of us — a startling 50% of the U.S. workforce — are doing only the bare minimum to collect a paycheck.
But we’ve heard far less about what happens when it’s the boss who is quiet quitting. How does that affect direct reports, especially those who are just starting their career and looking to their manager for guidance?
I surveyed 121 of my undergraduate students at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations to find out what they’re noticing at work and how it affects them. Here’s what I learned.
What are you seeing?
Many of my students hold part-time or full-time jobs in places like banks, logistics centers and healthcare facilities, or office jobs in the hospitality, telecommunication, transportation and nonprofit sectors. They have managers delegating tasks, not just professors handing out assignments.
Consistent with Gallup’s findings, 53% of my students reported they’ve seen a current or former supervisor quiet quitting. The three most frequently reported behaviors were:
- Completing less work
- Leaving early
- Taking longer to respond to messages
“They rarely show up in meetings, and they are not in the office as frequently as they used to be,” one student wrote. “Also, they would take almost two days to respond to Microsoft Teams messages or ignore them completely.”
How does it affect you?
Among the 53% of students who have seen a supervisor quiet quit, most reported feeling ignored and less engaged. But the other 47% were still concerned about what could happen if their supervisor checks out.
Analyzing the survey results, one disturbing gender difference jumped out. Female students feared they would not receive regular feedback if they worked in an environment where the supervisor quiet quits.
Previous studies demonstrated that women are already less likely to receive actionable feedback that could contribute to their performance and growth at work. Quiet quitting threatens to exacerbate the problem.
This is especially concerning for early-career women, who must learn the unwritten rules of getting a promotion in their workplace. Without feedback, they may not build relationships with key influencers, understand mission-critical assignments, or demonstrate behaviors aligned with organizational leadership competencies.
Is quiet quitting contagious?
There was another interesting gender difference in the survey results. While my female students commonly said they would stick it out and do their best, male students said they would be more likely to copy a supervisor’s quiet quitting behaviors.
“It would likely make me less motivated since supervisors are whom I'm supposed to look up to and work under,” one male student said. “It would make me more likely to mimic them.”
This finding speaks to the importance of managers being role models at work. Strong leaders are focused on building trust, taking accountability for their actions, and demonstrating the behaviors they expect of their team. Weak leaders often model incivility, causing their employees to do less work.
When the supervisor is quiet quitting, it could spread through the workplace and result in lost productivity.
What can organizations do?
There are two critical ways to support early-career professionals in this situation.
First, assigning a mentor can give younger employees a voice on the job. Although the mentor may not be able to provide feedback on day-to-day performance, they can take the employee’s concerns to upper management and advocate on behalf of early-career professionals. Research shows this support can positively influence how employees feel about the organization.
Second, employers should engage early-career professionals in ongoing conversations about their workplace experiences. Managers cannot and should not facilitate this process on their own. After all, they could be part of the problem. Instead, HR leaders should create employee resource groups where young professionals can safely share their concerns.
This is critically important for women and people of color, who may be disproportionately affected by a supervisor who quiet quits.
The bottom line
Quiet quitting is not as new as we think, but it’s happening with surprising frequency in workplaces nationwide. Organizations must take action when a supervisor’s behavior threatens to erode workplace culture, reduce productivity, and stunt the growth of early-career professionals.