Employee Engagement Is Actually Falling. Just Don’t Call It ‘Quiet Quitting.’

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I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to rage-read about “rage applies.” I’ve not-so-silently soured on “quiet quitting.” And if one more email hits my inbox about “quiet hiring” or some other supposed trend, it’s going straight to the junk folder.

Enough already.

After three years of pandemic-fueled remote work, record numbers of resignations, elevated burnouts and now mass layoffs, I get that it feels like there should be a name for the stress, the turnover, and the disruption of the last few years. Indeed, that may be why—not to mention the incessant cycle of journalists, social media posts and public relations folks who repeat and recirculate these terms—we won’t stop making up words about work, as Vox’s Rani Molla wrote recently.

But talk to anyone who leads human resource teams, and you’ll get an eye roll—and an ear full—when you bring up any of them. People have always applied for new jobs—and yes, many at once—out of frustration with their current ones. “Quiet hiring” is repackaged internal mobility—which may sound like a sinister way to avoid bringing on new employees but can also help reassign underutilized people who might otherwise be laid off.

“Why do [these terms] always have to be alliteration? Why do they have to be two words? I guess we like short form communications,” Paul Rubenstein, the chief people officer at Visier, said in a recent interview. “None of them are truly unique.”

Sure, engagement is lower than it has been. Employee engagement arbiter Gallup released its latest figures Wednesday, and it is seeing a further drop in the data. In 2021, employee engagement in the US saw its first annual decline in a decade, dropping from 36% of employees being “engaged” (which it defines as a measure of the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work) to 34% in 2021. .

That continued into 2022, Gallup reported Wednesday, with now just 32% of full- and part-time employees being engaged. The percent of employees who were actively “disengaged” rose by two percentage points from 2021. Younger workers, women and people whose jobs could be done remotely but were required to be onsite daily—no surprise there—saw the biggest drops in engagement.

But while the numbers have gotten worse—and may be worse than they’ve been in a decade—it’s not like they’ve never been here before. Gallup’s data shows that 32% is still above the line of how many workers were “engaged” between 2000 and 2013, with some years dipping into the mid-20s on a percentage basis.

“People have been checking out and getting burned out at various stages of their careers forever—forever,” Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer at Relay Payments, told me recently. “It’s just the whole concept of engagement”—or disengagement.

The real question, of course, is which way the line will go from here. If a bad recession worsens people’s relationships with their jobs, and the line falls steadily below where engagement bounced around for the last 20 years, then perhaps something fundamental has shifted, and is deserving of a new term. If it stays where it is, or the threat of a recession reminds people that doing the bare minimum may not help keep them employed, I’m not so sure.

In the meantime, let’s try to retire the repetition of these cringe-worthy terms. At a time of mass layoffs and ongoing gun violence and mental health concerns, workers—and the people who lead them—have bigger issues to focus on. Yes, companies are filling slots with temp workers or reassigning people to jobs where they need them more. People are struggling with burnout and staying engaged in their jobs. And fed up workers are now—and always will be—looking for other jobs when their current one isn’t panning out. We don’t need a catchy name to talk about it.


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ON OUR AGENDA

News from the world of work

Microsoft’s big AI bet: ChatGPT maker Open AI got a “game-changing,” multibillion-dollar investment from Microsoft, according to Bloomberg, as the tech giant adds to its commitment to the viral artificial intelligence chatbot, which could have big impacts on how we work.

Layoffs surge: Spotify slashed 6% of jobs, and cuts recently hit 3M, crypto exchange Gemini, Alphabet and Wayfair. Tech stocks have surged as investors cheer massive job cut announcements even while employees around the world are facing a job security crisis, a survey of 35,000 workers shows. Nearly 60,000 people were laid off in January alone as major firms increased cuts.

A consultant for the Oval: Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, will be replaced by former covid czar Jeff Zients, according to multiple reports. The former consultant will face a tough job, navigating a split Congress, growing questions about Biden’s handling of classified documents, and the ramp up to the 2024 election.

Another founder passes the baton: Netflix’s Reed Hastings is stepping down as co-CEO from the streaming service after a rocky year, as one of the few major tech company founders still in place departs the top job.

Ardern’s surprise resignation: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked the world when she announced her resignation, saying she no longer has “enough in the tank to do” her leadership job justice. The decision prompted a parade of commentary on women, leadership and burnout—from how other women may relate to the impact her association with the pandemic may have had on her career.


READING LIST

An expansion of our near-weekly book pick to include links, surveys and other readings from around the web.

Deep Work author and Digital minimalism Advocate Cal Newport talks with the New York Times about “slow productivity,” the problem with context switching, and why working on a personal computer all day hasn’t really made workers more efficient.

Layoffs are really bad for companies, writes Bloomberg columnist Sarah Green Carmichael, citing the surprisingly consistent research that shows the downsides for the employers—and the people—who remain.

Stanford University business school professor Jeff Pfeffer—one of my favorite people to talk with about what businesses get wrong when managing people—talks with Stanford News about why there are so many tech layoffs, and the role “contagion” has been expanding them.

Performance coach Stefan Falk has a new book out Feb. 7, Intrinsic Motivation: Learn To Love Your Work And Succeed As Never Beforewhich explores how becoming happier and more productive relies on finding inherent satisfaction in our work rather than in external rewards.

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