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Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

  • 1.  Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-08-2022 09:05 PM

    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:

    • I do not forward my email or desk phone to my cell on the weekends or during PTO. 
    • I am unavailable to my employer between 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. every night as this is the time I focus on my family.  
    • I will not overcommit myself or our company's staff without first discussing with those involved.
    • I include PTO requests in workload projections.
    • I will not contact staff while they are on PTO until I have exhausted all other avenues.
    • I use the term "no" and encourage staff to do the same, if appropriate.

    Here's what healthy boundaries look like in my personal life:

    • When I am at work, I am fully at work. When I am on family time, I am fully on family time.
    • I am unavailable to my family and employer between 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., barring emergencies. "Me time" is important to my mental health.
    • I make sure to set aside time every week for my spouse without our child.
    • I ensure I have interests outside of work, my spouse, and my child.

    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?

    Jennifer Sloan Ziegler Ph.D., P.E., ENV SP, M.ASCE

  • 2.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-09-2022 10:16 AM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 09-09-2022 11:17 AM
    An engineer could spend more time justifying they have met the Standard of Care than if they simply practiced at the level that is expected within the profession.  Quiet quitting would only be possible if one had a firm grasp of the definition of the Standard of Care... as it is a collective definition, it cannot be found within isolation.  Therefore, quiet quitting should not be permitted or tolerated within our profession.

    Checking out and crossing boundaries, whether on the part of the employer or employee, are two sides of the same coin.  Both show a general lack of consideration for coworkers, clients, trades people, and the general public.  Engineers can offer more than one solution to solve a problem, picking the best and safest, requires input and consideration of the needs of others.  Engineering judgment requires critical thinking and collection of data that is not always given, but needs to be requested.  The manager has a responsibility to limit contact outside office hours, so that when an emergency does arrive, it can be addressed with the urgency it deserves.  Technology has afforded us the means to stay connected in ways not previously available.  Employees and employers who do not abuse the connectivity will realize the give and take involved.  Finally, as engineers, we may be working in the office or at home and it is important to recognize that shop and field workers often rely on quick responses so that they can get home quickly to their families.  

    Being transparent about your availability is vital, quiet quitting automatically invokes a level of dishonesty which is at odds with our Code of Ethics.

    Chad Morrison P.E., F.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Greenville RI

  • 3.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-09-2022 11:18 AM
    So, how do you define quiet quitting? How do you feel about quiet firing and how would you define that?

    To me, quiet quitting is not checking out of your job or not meeting the Standard of Care but setting boundaries around your job which is one of the reasons I so dislike the term.  Sure, some people are using the trend to justify the bare minimum (which I agree is wrong) but I think most people are seeing it as a way to establish boundaries they should have established a long time ago. I think that quiet quitting is becoming a thing because people are burnt out, they feel like they can't say no, they feel undervalued, and they need a break.  If this trend results in having healthy boundaries between the personal and professional sides of your life, I have to disagree that it "invokes a level of dishonesty which is at odds with our Code of Ethics".

    Jennifer Sloan Ziegler Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE
    Ridgeland MS

  • 4.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-09-2022 03:38 PM
    Quiet quitting as defined by social media is doing the bare minimum that is required of your job and working exactly to the clock... leaving exactly at 5:00pm.  This is possible and acceptable when you are meeting a quota.  Engineering practice does not and should not involve quotas.

    Quiet firing is just as inappropriate as quiet quitting, there are other means of management available such as demotion, reassignment, or termination... quiet firing opens the door for accusations of discrimination and puts the company at risk. In any other terms both are passive aggression.

    Yes, engineering duties do include mundane tasks.  Understanding where these tasks fit within the support others is important in growing as a professional.  Not being curious or accepting things as they are... leads to complacency and no room for improvement.  The profession demands lifelong learning and innovation. 

    So how do we avoid quiet quitting and quiet firing within our profession?  By adhering to best practices to ensure we are meeting and exceeding the Standard of Care (which only hindsight can make 20/20), offering professional courtesy to others, and exercising good faith in any agreement (including the hiring process).

    Chad Morrison P.E., F.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Greenville RI

  • 5.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-13-2022 10:42 AM

    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). 

    Clarence Kemper CPEng, P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal Engineer
    Kemper Engineering Services
    Baton Rouge LA

  • 6.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-12-2022 10:05 AM
    When I first started my career, I had work email notifications on my phone. A couple years in, I realized that was not healthy; I was having trouble "leaving work at work" and not sleeping well if I got frustrating emails after hours. Even when I turned the notifications off, it was difficult not to check it from home. A few years later, I'm better about leaving it for the next work day. 

    I also at one point was working really late hours including a few really late nights and all-nighters to meet unrealistic deadlines. The "final straw" was when I pulled 2 all-nighters in one week for a client that had promised to let me know if the deadline moved. I checked in multiple times and was told it hadn't changed. EIGHT WEEKS later she called me with a question because they were "wrapping up plans for the CDs"... 8 weeks beyond the deadline. I hadn't procrastinated my work on the project; they had made that many changes right up to the "deadline" that I kept having to redesign things. If I were in that position in the future, I would tell them the deadline is unreasonable for the scope of work, and I would also not accept substantial changes that close to the deadline (addenda and revisions exist for a reason). To make it worse in hindsight, the project didn't even get built; the owner or developer backed out, and something else is going on that property now. So I made myself miserable, made myself too worn out to think straight on my other tasks, and was probably not the sweetest to my coworkers in my exhaustion for absolutely nothing. 

    We, as an industry, have to do better at advocating for ourselves. When that client wants you to do in a month what really takes 3 with the available resources, tell them that. Tell them professionally and respectfully, but tell them that's what it will take to do it properly. 

    I don't think most civil engineering employers get some kind of kick out of overworking employees and burning them out. However, it is a natural consequence of over-promising on deliverables and timelines. If setting those healthy boundaries isn't coming from the top down, they may have to come from the bottom up. 

    It is absolutely possible to set boundaries without going against any portion of the code of ethics or our professional standards. In fact, we would probably be better engineers. Studies have shown, for example, that people that actually take their vacation days are more productive (don't have a specific link on hand, but I've seen multiple studies with similar conclusions over the years). Maybe if we didn't overburden our industry employees, they would be in a better mental space to catch mistakes, think of creative solutions, and streamline processes.

    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK

  • 7.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-12-2022 01:50 PM

    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

    Clarence Kemper CPEng, P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal Engineer
    Kemper Engineering Services
    Baton Rouge LA

  • 8.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-13-2022 02:36 AM
    I think Clarence did a much more articulate job that I could have at explaining how "some things work for some people at some companies, but they will not work for all people at all companies." I would guess that since every individual is going to contextualize the definition of "quiet quitting/healthy boundaries" according to their own experiences, its likely we're going to see a lot of different opinions on the subject that we ourselves may not have the appropriate perspective to view them through. Yes, some people may abuse the definition (both "lazy people" and "over-demanding companies", but I would also be willing to guess that these people had the same work ethic before the current name was given to it, and will continue to do so after it is forgotten.

    So instead of adding anything more on that, I think its worth keeping in mind that current hot topics like this pushed on media (both mainstream and social) typically burn out just as quickly as they arrive, only to be replaced by something else. Hopefully we can all take away something positive from the topics it is raising and be content to leave it at that for the brief time it is here. Things have a way of regressing to the mean on their own.

    Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer

  • 9.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-27-2022 07:57 AM
    Thanks Jennifer for the questions!
    Q. "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?"

    A. It depends.
    I really appreciate the sincere and well-delivered responses delivered to date.
    By and large they represent the sociocultural mores of these times.

    If one went back to 1945; or 1955; or 1970 and asked the very same questions we would read very different messages.
    Not "Right" or "Wrong" but just different.

    And if the same question were posed now in other countries, I'd expect quite some different responses.

    This reminds me that going forward, it would be great if our formal engineering education addressed such sociocultural insights prior to graduation.

    The only constant is change!

    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880

  • 10.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 09-27-2022 10:28 AM
    Dr. Phil is discussing this topic on Friday. I have gone from 0 to 100 when it comes to the phrase "Quiet Quitting"; never heard it and now hearing it every day. 
    The same thing happens when it comes to cars and people. 
    Given we and all things are made of energy and vibrate at a certain frequency, I take the stance that once we are tuned to a certain frequency, we pick it up all the time. It is though life has an algorithm similar to the internet and social media apps collecting info on every you see and page you visit. 
    I purchased a used truck and now I see that truck everywhere and in more commercials or is it simply I pay more attention?!

    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA

  • 11.  RE: Quiet Quitting or Healthy Boundaries?

    Posted 10-02-2022 11:48 AM
    Quiet Quitting is a new one to me - many a generational thing - but I've gotten the gist from these posts. i came across this article in the Guardian today on the topic that I found insightful. I found the paragraph near the start of the article with the lead in "The love-your-work culture has become so dominant..." (truncated so as to not spoil) as especially good food for thought. 

    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX