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A worker who just gets by and shows little initiative could be labeled lazy. Their attitude, however, could signal bigger problems.

Disengaged employees could be a sign of a toxic workplace, and employers who don’t investigate could find themselves with a lawsuit on their hands, said attorney Jim Reidy, who spoke about legal issues relating to quiet quitting at the Society for Human Resources management (SHRM) Employment Law and Compliance Conference in Washington, D.C., on February 26.

“When these things go unnoticed, and the person says they’ve had enough, then they file claim,” he said. “Then you have a problem that you didn’t address because you didn’t pay attention to it.”

Quiet quitting? Or something more?

In 2022, the decision not to engage at work came to be called “quiet quitting.” Workers following this philosophy did only what was expected of them at work, or maybe a little less.

While a healthy work-life balance is certainly good for well-being, workers who aren’t giving it their all in the workplace could be a sign that there are underlying issues that need to be addressed. A worker’s lack of motivation could be due to a toxic workplace, caused by bullying or harassment.

Employers who fail to address quiet quitting could eventually find themselves dealing with legal claims, Reidy said, including those relating to:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Other forms of workplace discrimination
  • Workplace safety concerns
  • Wage claims/wage theft
  • Whistleblower issues

Manager issues also a concern

Management issues could also be the reason an employee is quietly quitting, Reidy noted, as a poor manager can have a significant influence on a worker’s motivation and attitude.

In addition, a manager who ignores harassment claims or other worker concerns may be putting a company at risk for a lawsuit.

Signs to watch for

Dissatisfaction, job burnout, and poor workplace communication can all influence an employee’s decision to disengage from their job. There is no one reason for quiet quitting, however. “It depends on the individual and a combination of causes,” Reidy said.

There are signals employers can watch for, however. Signs that a worker’s motivation is being drained include:

  • Change in attendance
  • Inattentive at meetings
  • Refusal of overtime
  • Lack of initiative
  • Not encouraging others to work
  • Not promptly responding to emails to texts

Looking into the situation

For steps employers can take to address employee engagement issues, and get to the bottom of an employee’s lack of motivation, Reidy pointed to tips from a 2022 Gallup survey:

  • Communicate mission, purpose, and stated goals
  • Act in accord with those stated goals
  • Listen and observe
  • Ask questions/investigating complaints
  • Don’t be afraid to act
  • Respond promptly and appropriately to identified problems
  • Take steps to monitor and guard against retaliation
  • Consider incentives to re-engage employees and reinvigorate the workplace

Get employees excited about work

In addition to taking steps to avoid issues associated with quiet quitting, companies can act to encourage engagement and help employees enjoy their job:

  • Ask employees to identify one thing they like or love at work
  • Craft a job to maximize employee potential
  • Set reasonable expectations

“We need to better understand employees to keep them engaged and productive,” Reidy said.

Key to remember: A employee’s lack of motivation and engagement could be a sign of bigger issues, such as a toxic workplace. Take action to lower the risk for legal claims.