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As an engineer married to an engineer, you can imagine some of the *nerdy* topics of discussion in my household. As my spouse and I have progressed in our careers, our conversations have changed but a lot of them still focus around work. Recently, we have been discussing – some could say respectfully disagreeing about - the TikTok trend of "quiet quitting". The topic of quiet quitting is popping up frequently – my friends and I discussed it, it's being discussed at work, there are articles everywhere you look, it's all over social media, etc.
After reflecting on the idea of quiet quitting more and more, I find I don't particularly like the term and, in fact, prefer to refer to it as "setting and enforcing healthy boundaries". Here's what that looks like in my professional life, barring legitimate emergencies:
Here's what healthy boundaries look like in my personal life:
What are some healthy boundaries you set in your personal and professional life? What are some boundaries you would like to see be more of an industry standard?
Quiet quitting, as used in social media, is the worker unilaterally deciding what the minimum work level is, deciding what the rules are, and then executing the plan without informing coworkers or supervisors. You have quit "their job" and are now deciding to do the job you decided upon. They talk about "cancelling coworkers" who are going above and beyond what that worker feels is appropriate, therefore it's ok to push the work they are not doing onto others (co-workers or subordinates). They justify it by talking about "corporations" who have "no loyalty" and absolutely ignore the harm they may be causing to subordinates, co-workers, clients (to include children if working as a teacher, day care, etc.), their supervisors, or the organization as a whole. It is all about their decision, unilaterally, to define their roles their way.There is no consent. There is no negotiation. There is no informing others. You just do it to keep the paycheck coming. That is how its discussed in social media and in various features. It might be a toxic environment where they are afraid to use their words, but the predominant theme is to blame "the big corporation" and to unilaterally do what is right for yourself, by their own personal definition, and still expect the same pay and benefits.
No one who is "quiet quitting" is talking about "I negotiated work conditions with my supervisor and enforced them." That is not the context of "quiet quitting". No one is talking about "I kept to the company policies that protect me and made sure supervisors didn't make any demands that exceeded company policy." That is normal adult behavior. Your post about your actions is the opposite of "quiet quitting". You used your words, clearly communicated your boundaries, and worked within the system so you, your co-workers, your subordinates, and your supervisors all were on the same page. What you did was about consent and being an active, engaged employee and team member.
Quiet quitting is about acting without consent and forcing others to assess what is going on, whether to respond, and how to respond if that minimum or boundary is not acceptable. If they ever, at any time, fail to inform others of their actions or intent and just say "nice things" with no intention of following through, then they are lying, either through commission (by saying "nice things") or omission (not informing others).
A lot of this is context driven. I understand the issue of setting healthy boundaries and agree with it. I am confident you worked this out with your supervisor. However, in terms of the TikToc / Social Media stuff, that's not what it's about. It's about the worker unilaterally deciding what their minimums are and working down to them.Work is a relationship. Like any relationship, healthy boundaries come from healthy communications across all modes. If one party is unilaterally deciding what the minimums are, and that these minimums are appropriate for the pay and position as well as the needs of the organization, it's an ugly, toxic relationship. It doesn't matter if it's the worker or the supervisor acting unilaterally. On the front end, there is the context of the industry, the position, what the role traditionally entails, and what is specifically called out in the job description. For example, as an Army engineer I played with other people's explosives and got shot at. Planning on contingencies for my surveyor team or road grading team reacting to mortar rounds or snipers was just another day. That was in the "large print" of my job, but it's not acceptable as a DPW engineer in New Orleans, La. Are you part of a large organization and are literally replaceable by the person in the next office over? Or are you the principal engineer of a smaller firm and are a key driver in the business of the operation with accompanying knowledge of people, projects, and history that makes you hard to replace (and in some cases, not possible without shifting business lines). Do you work long term infrastructure projects where "short term" is measured in months, or does your work include troubleshooting and rapid response where grabbing a "go bag" in response to a phone call part of the expectation? If you are in the latter job, you cannot fail to pick up the phone. Are you salary with expectations of increasing your role or are you contract with a defined role on an hourly basis?Not everyone is suited for every job. Some people "wet stack" and are underloaded, not really effective, with workloads that cause other people to overload. Some cannot "people". Some cannot grab a problem and just chew on it, researching and pushing numbers until they beat it into submission. Some people want to work in a defined zone of expectation with clearly delineated boundaries for expertise, preferring a narrow band of expertise and not having to learn radically new things; others are more about solving the problem and excel at grass-roots approaches to engineering. Are you in an entrepreneurial "wild catting" company or are you a federal/state worker? These differences are key into getting oneself into what HR calls "a good fit for the job."
A big issue is the job "just a job" for you, where you are there to get a paycheck or is this your passion? Neither is good or bad, but it does create different dynamics. From a supervising engineer's perspective, the "minimum to not get fired" is not a sustainable level, as people have ups and downs. The "minimum to not get fired" is when a person is dealing with divorce or a death in the family or is otherwise at a low point and you give them the room to be human and deal with these things, in part because when they are "on" and hitting it with all cylinders, they are well above the minimums and will punch extra hours as needed as part of being salaried to make deadlines. As an engineer, we are expected to spend a certain amount of our own time in self-study and gaining new skills. If someone refuses to do the self-study to for the P.E. exam, for example, but instead insists they are taken off billable hours to do so when there is no one to take the slack, then it's less likely the person will be advancing and more likely the person will be cut should there be a need to reduce headcount as projects wind down.
It mostly comes down to healthy communications and clear expectations. Assuming good communications are in place, the engineer knows what they are walking into. If the engineer thought it would be a good fit but it turns out to not be so, then if the company cannot make the requested adjustments the engineer needs to find a new job. Instead, "quiet quitting" (as advocated by many) is defining what doesn't work to be "above and beyond" the job and not do it, being good with pushing the excess work on other people ("cancelled co-workers") or forcing the team to do less work overall. It is a technique. Depending on the overall situation, it may work. It may also explain why other people are being promoted (which is used to justify "why bother") as well as being assessed as not being capable of doing the full scope of the job and given the opportunity to work in a more compatible environment (which is used to say "there is no loyalty, you will be fired, so why bother").
There is no one punchlist for work place rules and requirements that works across the spectrum of engineering. What makes one engineer happy and secure can cause another to quit. What will make one organization successful can make another organization fail. What is important is the healthy relationships, and that comes from healthy communications. If either party is acting unilaterally, it's not going to go well.
Bart Kemper, PE