Advice & News

October 4, 2022

Could ‘Quiet Quitting’ Spell Trouble for Higher Ed?

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In the past month, the phrase "quiet quitting" has taken the world by storm. To be honest, we have been hesitant to chime in. Just wrapping our heads around what quiet quitting really means, and whether it's a bad notion, has been difficult, let alone evaluating its prevalence in -- and the effect on -- higher education.

Some say it is just denouncing hustle culture and setting boundaries for yourself.

"Quiet quitting is something that has been there for years but trending now. Good that people are indeed prioritising personal life and not glamorising overworking," wrote one Twitter user (Namita Das), after quoting George Carlin: "Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit."

Many have framed quiet quitting as a direct response to the pandemic. "The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for employees to reflect on their work life, and many have decided that they're being asked to do too much," says Michael D. Levitt, founder & chief burnout officer of The Breakfast Leadership Network, a San Diego and Toronto-based burnout media firm.

Others go so far as saying it's a natural, unintentional response. "I don't think employees are [quiet quitting] purposefully, rather it is the natural effects of the pandemic now showing their wear on most people," says Aimee White, co-owner of Keyboard Kings and previous HR manager. "Most employees just don't find meaning or legitimation from work anymore [...] Employees now seek meaning outside of the workplace, having had their own mortality in question during the pandemic."

So, is quiet quitting simply setting boundaries? Or is it a slippery slope? No one wants to attend (or send a child to) a college where faculty and staff are disengaged and doing the bare minimum, right? When students and their parents think about college, they undoubtedly envision a team of faculty, staff, and leaders who care deeply about their education, outcomes, and futures. Quality is non-negotiable. Comprising that could spell trouble for an institution.

"Quiet quitting is interesting," wrote Dr. Desiree Kozlowski in a recent Tweet. "Its name alone is testament to the toxic assumptions of our hustle culture. What would happen in your workplace if everyone suddenly started working the number of hours that were in the job ad? I humbly propose that universities would collapse."

Would they? Thinking back to our own experiences in higher education, we likely all have a story about someone on campus who 'went above and beyond' -- i.e., demonstrating organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) -- and made a difference in our lives or career trajectories. What would your life look like without that person?

"These types of behaviors, sometimes referred to 'extra-role behaviors,' refer to employees' willingness to engage in work behaviors or work performance that go beyond what is specified in their job descriptions or what is expected of them in terms of their job," says Anthony Wheeler, PhD, dean of the School of Business Administration and a professor of management at Widener University.

We understand that discussing management theory may be triggering for some. However, the intent of examining organizational citizenship behavior in contrast to "quiet quitting" (if it means employee disengagement and apathy) is not to encourage colleges and university leaders to disrespect or take advantage of their staff and faculty, but illuminate potential opportunities where leadership may be able to better support their employees, which in turn leads to a healthier environment that reduces burnout, resentment, or other negative feelings about work. Additionally, we challenge employees to consider that if fair compensation and respect are in place, the idea of going above and beyond (as described in the OCB attributes) could be a positive concept for higher education. We understand that the support of this theory may not resonate with all.

According to the Academy to Innovate HR, there are five common organizational citizenship behaviors, including altruism, courtesy, sportsmanship, conscientiousness, and civic virtue. Perhaps your colleague is struggling to get their course set up in the LMS and you offer assistance -- that's altruism. Or maybe you'll be out on vacation and someone will be covering for you, but you plan ahead so they aren't drowning in work -- that's exhibiting conscientiousness. These behaviors, while not part of your job description, are important. They benefit not only your institution and department, but your colleagues and students. These behaviors can boost morale, build community among employees, and make work more meaningful. Feeling valued by your employer through appropriate compensation as well as through other praise or recognition tends to lead employees to be more engaged and, in turn, potentially exhibit organizational citizenship behaviors as described, which hopefully is seen as a good thing for all.

Wheeler says this phenomenon of "quiet quitting" occurs when employees stop engaging in organizational citizenship behaviors and simply do the work stated in their job description.

"No more 'above and beyond,' he says. "No more extra-role performance that benefits others in the organization or the organization itself. Just do one's work to the letter of the job description. No more, no less."

If we adopt this idea that quiet quitting stands in opposition to OCB, then yes, it threatens higher education's reputation and its very mission. Through this lens, in a follow-up article, we examine the signs of quiet quitting and how employers can fend it off, support their employees, and instead promote the OCB that makes the [higher ed] world go round.

The Take-A-Way

The definition of 'quiet quitting' simply isn't definitive. Our take on quiet quitting is if proper compensation exists, but faculty or staff disengagement or apathy still persists, it could threaten the future of higher education and the ability to serve students in the best way possible. We acknowledge that if unfair compensation exists and the institution relies on staff and faculty to be connected to and uphold the mission it may give a lack of hope in careers and is detrimental to all sides.

There are differing opinions, and before getting into a heated discussion, it's wise to make sure you understand others' views on the topic. Our take is simply that organizational citizenship behavior has historically been part of the backbone of higher education culture (whether that's a good thing is yet another topic for discussion). Cue the quiet quitting, and colleges and universities might become very different places (and, dare we say, diminish their value).

Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and don't imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.
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