Quiet quitting has been in the news recently to describe a trend by employees to only do the bare minimum at work. Some have described it as setting boundaries and not doing work beyond what you were hired to do, and for what you are being paid for.
The most common question I’ve been getting from employers, is if employees have the right to refuse to do work if it is not their regular job description. From the questions I’ve been fielding from clients, this is the most common refrain from employees – they refuse to do a certain task asked of them because they say it is not in their job description. However, a job description (if properly drafted) does not create a contract with the employee and should only set out a general overview of the duties the employee is expected to do. Employers have the right and ability to change an employee’s job duties as needed. It is a good reminder for employers to review their job descriptions to ensure that they are properly drafted, reflect the duties the employee is generally expected to perform, and explain that the duties may change over time. Generally speaking, an employee does not have a legal right to refuse to perform tasks required by his or her employer because it is not in their job description or is not part of their regular job duties.
What remedies and actions are available to employers to address quiet quitters? Here are a few considerations for employers:
1. Counseling and performance plans.
Similar to approaching any performance issues in the workplace, employers have the option of counseling employees about their substandard performance, and if necessary to put the employee on a performance plan.
2. Incentivizing through bonuses, raises, and promotions.
If employees are only performing at the bare minimum, employers have the ability to adjust the level of bonuses, raises, and promotions provided to employees. If compensation plans are properly drafted, and bonuses and raises are discretionary, employers may lower these incentives during the next review, or forego them altogether. It is critical that employers document the employee’s lack of performance in order to justify a lower bonus or raise at the end of the year. That is why the counseling discussed in item #1 is so critical.
3. Recognition of top performers.
On the flipside of reducing bonuses or raises, employers should consider rewarding employees who are going above and beyond. Employers also have the ability to publicly recognize top performing employees within the company – and this can go a long way in sending a message to the workforce that performance matters in terms of compensation. The additional benefit is that the top performers realize that their contributions are being recognized.
4. Increased communications – don’t presume someone is a quiet quitter just because this term is in the news.
Employers are encouraged to communicate with employees they believe are quiet quitting. It is important to attempt to understand why the employee may appear to be quiet quitting – as the employer may misread the situation where the employee is going through a difficult time in their personal life and that is impacting their work. Just because quite quitting is a trendy term in the news today – do not assume that it is the situation for all perceived or real substandard work performance, as the situation is likely more complicated.
5. Termination is available.
If it becomes evidently clear that the employee is a quiet quitter, if the employee is an at-will employee, they may be terminated for their substandard performance. This situation is no different than terminating an employee for substandard performance, which employers have been managing long before the pandemic.
Under California law, it is presumed that all employment is terminable at-will. California Labor Code section 2922 provides: “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.” The at-will doctrine means that the employment relationship can be terminated by either party at any time, with or without cause, and with or without advanced notice. There are some major exceptions to this rule, but generally California law recognizes that employers and employees may, at any time, and for any legal reason, terminate the employment relationship. Of course, managers should consult with human resources or the appropriate executive before terminating an employee, but managers need to understand that they can terminate employees with or without cause and should be trained on the legal parameters of at-will employment.