two colleagues of color sitting at a table in an office looking at an open laptop
Bailey Zelena; insta_photos/Getty Images

Quiet quitting has been defined as doing juuust the right amount of work and setting boundaries between your job and everything else. Employees embracing the trend are no longer willing to burn out in an attempt to exceed expectations or to make their careers their entire personalities, arguing that it’s a strategy to protect your well-being in a culture that prizes hustle and overwork at employees’ expense.

But the conversation on this workplace trend leaves out a large number of workers whose well-being is perhaps most threatened in the American workplace, but who may not be able to stop going the extra mile without experiencing negative consequences—including women, people of color, employees with disabilities, employees from other marginalized groups, and certainly those who hold more than one marginalized identity.

“I can’t quiet quit,” says Dannie Lynn Fountain, a Senior Software Engineer (SWE) sourcer for Google who is biracial, plus size, queer, and neurodivergent. As a recruiter of talent for the tech giant who helps candidates throughout the application process, Fountain has seen how coming from a historically underrepresented or marginalized background can affect job applicants as well as current employees, herself included. “Marginalized people have built reputations of going above and beyond, leaving absolutely no doubt as to the quality of our performance.”

And that just doesn’t jive with quiet quitting.

Existing biases make quiet quitting a riskier, less realistic option for some employees.

The American workplace hardly starts off as a level playing field. Employees from marginalized groups face obstacles and discrimination stemming from explicit as well as implicit biases—unconscious beliefs that may influence how we judge people, whether we want to or not. In the workplace, managers, supervisors, and even colleagues may ascribe negative beliefs to coworkers due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other status—all of which impacts employees’ experiences of the workplace and access to opportunities.

Let’s take race and gender as examples. Women continue to be underrepresented in high-ranking positions—with women, men of color, and women of color especially losing ground at every step up the ladder from entry-level to C-suite. Women of color report facing microaggressions, slower or no job progress, and “othering”—being treated as atypical because of their race and gender. And even when Black women reach leadership positions, they face harsher criticism. Women, and especially women of color, are also more likely to report they get stuck doing “office housework” that may or may not fall within their job descriptions. Women who say “no” tend to suffer negative repercussions spared for white, male colleagues who do the same.

“Quiet quitting is nothing new,” says Dr. Ella F. Washington, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expert and professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. “Post-2020 people really took the time to evaluate what’s important to them. For employees who weren’t able to participate in the Great Resignation, quiet quitting is a way to combat the feeling that work is not giving them what they need.” 

People of color often live by the adage that you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.

Ella F. Washington

But often the same people who felt they couldn’t resign are the ones concerned about the risks of quiet quitting. “People of color often live by the adage that you have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” she says. In a world where that adage holds true, it’s easy to see why some employees feel quiet quitting could have more severe consequences for them than for their more privileged peers.

“Across all of my work I see a confidence gap,” Fountain says. “People who come from stable or privileged backgrounds approach interviews with a sense of confidence or even overconfidence. Individuals from less privileged or any marginalized background are not only a lot more humble, but also every step forward they take in the process is met with overwhelming gratitude.”

These confidence gaps, along with imposter syndrome and the sense that you can’t afford to pull back from doing extra work and exceeding expectations aren’t self-imposed burdens—they’re a result of systemic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other biases. The confident and overconfident candidates and employees might feel secure enough in their jobs to dial it back, but their marginalized colleagues may not. And the fact that workers privileged enough to quiet quit are doing so might make things worse for less privileged colleagues if the duties they’re no longer performing become required for those who run more risks when they say “no.“

“From my personal experience, we’re often conditioned to overperform and to provide more output, preparation, and clarity,” says Leslie Forde, the CEO of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs who runs the Allies @ Work program to help employers implement practices that foster equity in the workplace. Forde, who is a Black woman, says she and others from underrepresented groups are accustomed “to [doing] our work in a way that puts us in a better position to not only maintain our jobs, but also succeed and be promoted.“

And none of this magically disappears even at well-intentioned organizations. “I have been fortunate to work for some really inclusive employers,” says Chase Cassine, a licensed clinical social worker in the New Orleans area. But “when I hear the term quiet quitting, I definitely don’t see that as being something Black and brown communities can utilize,” he says. “I see majority groups of non-minorities who are in power and have that luxury.”

When I hear the term quiet quitting, I definitely don’t see that as being something Black and brown communities can utilize. I see majority groups of non-minorities who are in power and have that luxury.

Chase Cassine

Putting in less effort isn’t an option because, Cassine echoes Forde, “We’ve actually been culturally conditioned to be hard workers. We’ve seen our parents work really hard and go the extra mile.” His own working-class parents did everything in their power to ensure he had access to the education that would later allow him to do his job in a field where Black men are underrepresented.

It can be hard for any employee whose job description includes a phrase like “other duties as assigned” to navigate what’s enough and what falls short of meeting the demands of their role. “When somebody tells you something needs to be done right now, your anxiety goes up. You start thinking, ‘This is my job and I need to pay bills,’” says Cassine—who’s found himself rushing to find a computer to answer non-urgent calls and texts while on vacation, for example—and if you tried to quiet quit, that might look like not fulfilling your job description.

But it’s particularly fraught for employees from marginalized groups. “Bringing up concerns can also make you feel as if you’ll be labeled as an angry Black person or a disgruntled employee,” he says. It leaves some employees stuck between a rock and a hard place where communicating and quiet quitting alike can raise fear of retaliation due to implicit biases and stereotypes.

Employees from marginalized groups might already be getting quiet fired.

Washington is also concerned with another unspoken phenomenon that’s starting to garner attention in the wake of the quiet quitting discourse: quiet firing. According to LinkedIn News, quiet firing might look like “going years without a raise or promotion, shifting responsibilities toward tasks that require less experience, or a deliberate withdrawal of development and leadership opportunities.” In other words, employees who are being quiet fired might feel nudged out or set up to fail by a boss or company that’s making their job feel like a thankless, unpleasant dead end.

“People of color and women consistently receive bias in their performance evaluations and a lack of clarity on expectations,” Washington says. “Instead of having a conversation on performance shifts that need to happen, managers lean back,” which can—over time—amount to quiet firing. So can raises and promotions that come around more slowly or not at all.

Employees with disabilities face similar obstacles. They have the right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace, per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But even if organizations provide them, the benefits of disclosing intimate details about one’s health may come at a cost if an employer harbors harmful biases about people with disabilities. Like employees from other marginalized groups, disabled employees report feeling insulted, excluded, and underestimated, and believe stigmas will impede their careers and prevent them from being hired or, if they are hired, from being promoted or reaching leadership roles.

She felt like she was giving her all to the job, but was being set up to be perceived as disengaged—what today we might call ‘quiet quitting’—all while being quiet fired due to a lack of accommodations that would allow her to do her best work and thrive in her role.

ZK—who asked to use her initials only to avoid repercussions to her career—had been on the job hunt for a few months when she found an opportunity at a NASA lab. She decided to apply, went to the interview, and was offered the position. But just before her job began ZK was told she’d be a contractor instead of a direct hire. The job would still be full-time, and ZK was reassured that everything would remain the same, including benefits, pay, and opportunities for flexibility.

Everything seemed normal until ZK started having health issues that affected her ability to work in the office. In the pre-pandemic era, “They said I wasn’t allowed to work remotely even as a disability accommodation,” she says. Instead, she was told to take unpaid time off on days she was too sick to go to work. She felt like she was giving her all to the job, but was being set up to be perceived as disengaged—what today we might call “quiet quitting”—all while being quiet fired due to a lack of accommodations that would allow her to do her best work and thrive in her role.

It’s just another reminder of the work that’s left to do.

The disparities around quiet quitting and the risks involved offer yet another lens that reveals broad, deep-seated bias and inequity in the workplace.

“Many managers do not know how to lead inclusively,” Forde says. “Bias training is important but managers can also change how they conduct performance reviews and meetings, and change how employees are encouraged to show up in the course of daily business.” The same is true on a systemic level, beyond individual managers. It’s not enough for an organization to make public proclamations in the wake of an event like George Floyd’s murder—which spurred many companies to announce anti-racism goals and commitments. Companies need to commit to making changes in the long term, Forde says.

In a more inclusive, equitable world of work where employers valued all of their workers as people ahead of productivity and profits, employees from marginalized groups could quiet quit with no more or less concern than any of their coworkers. But in that world, they might not feel they want or need to.

Updated 9/21/2022