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When I was in school, many times the class teacher would write a callous “average" in the report cards of some students. These students fell in the “meets expectations" category. They attended classes, completed their homework assignments, but were more or less invisible in a classroom where the teacher-to-student ratio was 1:45.

In corporate parlance, these students were slotted in the lower to middle bracket of performance under the bell curve, and were frequently reminded that they needed to have the “drive" to move ahead. With this sort of conditioning, which begins in childhood, urging everyone to become faster, better and stronger or get left behind and possibly replaced, can ‘quiet quitting’ gain acceptance in India?

Quiet quitting is what employees do when they merely follow what their job description asks of them and nothing more. They do not venture to pick up the slack left by slacking team members, prefer to decline when asked to help out with other projects, and generally “act their wage" in the sense of adhering to what they consider a fair ‘work-for-money’ deal.

In India’s corporate world, where an extended holiday is frowned upon and there is always a reminder that many are in queue for your job, how long before the firm shifts you from the middle bulk of the bell curve and shows you the exit door?

“At 6pm, my team member said her working hours are over and she left, while others in her team stayed back for some more time discussing other projects," said a senior executive in the client-facing tech team of IBM. “Her mention of working hours hit a raw nerve because there is a lot of work that the team has to do beyond job descriptions, and often one is expected to stretch," said the senior manager whose team works across geographies.

Although there have always been people in the workforce who diligently did their own work and swiped out on time, they were often skipped over for promotions and better increments, in favour of colleagues who “went that extra bit". But now, when companies are making up for covid-caused losses and gunning for more in case a recession dims their prospects, even the naysayers are seen as critical talent.

Discussions on quiet quitting right after the Great Resignation can be flummoxing. The country’s tech, pharma, startup and even consumer sectors saw employees being wooed with job offers, counter-offers and unprecedented salary hikes. Now, within months, amid murmurs of corporate employees working only on their key result areas (KRAs), bosses in many businesses are finding it tough to get them to hustle.

And the boss’s demand for hard work often becomes a hustle for a junior in a corporate setting where most are still suffering from the aftermath of two years of the pandemic. “From leave for menstrual cramps to recuperation of emotional health, to quiet quitting, we are grappling with topics that are still unknown. We are still struggling with raising the basic diversity bar," said a Human Resources head of a Bengaluru-based consumer tech startup.

An HR head of a leading consumer goods company told me that the trend of quiet quitters will not gain traction in India because most know that there are many waiting to take their jobs. Can you afford to just work enough for your wage when you know that the recent hiring frenzy has begun to ebb? Those in metro cities are competing now with candidates in tier 2 and 3 cities who are willing to work for less money as many companies penetrate the country deeper for recruitments. When people are working on additional gig projects to make ends meet, can those without some financial back-up afford quiet quitting?

What India Inc may not have realized yet is that many in the workforce are no longer seeking validation or a sense of achievement from their jobs. The pandemic has accelerated the thought that you are the sum of many parts and your job is only one of these—an integral part, but not necessarily the most critical one.

For India Inc, instead of dissing quiet quitters, it may work out in the long run to make space for them, or at least try to work with this group. It’s a tough task when there are revenues to chase and other team members would ask why some are given allowances unavailable to everyone.

Firms will have to study the causes of work disengagement and find out if steps can be taken to bring employees back into the fold. This is specially needed for critical employees, as large firms can’t always pay specific attention to individuals. With competition levels high and the gig economy gaining traction, companies must work harder on talent retention.

For quiet quitters, the road ahead may meander through rough patches, since their job security is likely to be wobbly. And while empathy and work-life balance are finally becoming more than just soothing discussion points, ultimately the firm is like a profit-motivated casino. And the golden rule holds: the house always wins.

Devina Sengupta writes on workplaces and education at Mint 

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