Key Contact: Patrick Walshe – Partner

As published in the Business Post, 8 October 2022.

In recent weeks, the concept of “quiet quitting” has received a great deal of media attention. The term seems to have gained currency on TikTok over the summer and countless articles have been written about it since then.

A Gallup poll published in early September suggested that approximately 50 per cent of US workers could be described as quiet quitters.

For the uninitiated, quiet quitting is generally used to describe the situation that prevails where an employee fulfils their job description, but doesn’t go above and beyond that, although there are a number of other definitions out there and Bloomberg has described it as being employees “psychologically detached from their work”.

Semantics aside, at its core, quiet quitting seems to occur where the employee does what is expected of them but does not go the extra mile, and certainly does not regard themselves as obliged, on foot of the employer-employee relationship, to prioritise their employer’s needs above everything else in their lives.

Indeed, from one perspective, the quiet quitter would appear to be the direct opposite of the workaholic.

It doesn’t help that the supposed “epidemic” of quiet quitting has been painted in some quarters in catastrophic terms and that employers worldwide should be worried about the effect this trend will have on their own workplaces.

That is highly debatable, and some recent commentary has rightly pointed out that if an employee turns up every day and does exactly what is asked of them, they are not “quiet quitting”, they are “working”.

So what, if anything, does employment law have to say about any of this?

Unsurprisingly, in circumstances where an employee performs competently in line with their job description and works the hours that they are required to do, an employer has little or no recourse. Nor, arguably, should an employer in this situation seek recourse.

As everyone knows, the employer-employee relationship is a contractual one at heart regardless of whether there is a written contract in existence. The essence of that relationship is pretty simple: the employee agrees to carry out certain services for the employer, and the employer pays the employee for those services.

If the employee doesn’t perform, or doesn’t perform to the required standard, employment law offers plenty of solutions and an employer is certainly not expected to tolerate a situation in which it pays for services it does not actually receive. That employer can engage immediately with the employee and require an improvement in performance – all the way up to putting the employee on a performance improvement plan and, ultimately, triggering disciplinary action if that doesn’t have the desired effect.

It’s important to note that a well-drafted employment contract will oblige an employee to work beyond their contracted hours in certain circumstances. But unpaid overtime isn’t some form of blank cheque for employers and is typically reserved for situations of genuine necessity. As well as that, if overtime is going to be a regular feature of the working relationship, an employee will be entitled to be paid.

However, the concept of quiet quitting doesn’t appear to include the situation where the employee just isn’t performing. Instead, it seems to involve either an unwillingness to provide services beyond the scope of the contract and/or involve some sort of psychic detachment on the part of the employee.

In other words, it’s where the employee basically does what is expected of them, but doesn’t buy in to the employer’s mission beyond that.

If so, then employment law has very little to add, even if it were possible to define precisely what it is that “quiet quitting” means.

The fact that an employee doesn’t dedicate themselves day and night, body and soul, to the employer’s mission, bottom line or profitability is most unlikely to be actionable in the first place. Ultimately, as referred to, this is a contractual relationship, and if you do what is expected of you on foot of the contract you signed, your employer has no comebacks.

All told, it’s entirely possible that the concept of quiet quitting is a classic silly season story, at least insofar as this is something for employers to really worry about.

If there is any real meaning in the concept of quiet quitting, it may lie here: employees who feel valued, who are treated well and who genuinely have an interest in the work that the employer is doing are far more likely to go the extra mile at work. Therein may lie the real value of debating quiet quitting.


For more information in relation to this article, please contact partner Patrick Walshe.