In My Own Words: When words mean something different

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I originally read the phrase and thought it meant something completely different. The phrase I’m referring to is “silent quitting.” My first thought was, “Oh, people are quitting their jobs without giving notice to their employer? That’s unprofessional. The standard notice is two weeks and most people in management give three to four weeks.”

Then I read the article and realized my interpretation was wrong. Since then I’ve actually read a variety of definitions and realized the phrase refers to two different phenomena: one is that people are leaving their jobs at the official quitting time, while the other references what they are doing, or rather not doing, when they are at work.

If you’re puzzled that people leaving at the official end of the workday is being called quitting, you aren’t the only one. However, it seems some businesses are expecting people to work two or three hours past what should be closing time. It also refers to people quietly refusing to work on weekends, a time they are technically not required to work. I’m not writing about hourly workers (who do get paid for any extra hours they work): these other workers receive a salary in exchange for working a given number of hours. 

I realize that many of us do put in extra time to finish specific work or projects. At my father’s accounting office, employees were expected to work evenings and Saturdays during tax season. They were not, however, expected to work those extra hours during other times of the year. But to tell people that the business has a 35 or 40 hour work week, but they are expected to put in 50-60 hours every week, is simply not fair. This may be different, say, in a law office where new lawyers are hoping to make partner with the pay raise and perks that go along with that. But people need time outside the office – time spent with families and friends, in addition to time to physically and mentally refresh themselves.

The second meaning of silent quitting refers to people who are only doing the minimum in their jobs. In addition to not coming in early or working late, they are not doing any tasks outside of their core job. This may mean not helping fellow employees with projects or seeking ways to improve the work flow. I don’t see this as a new phenomenon: there have always been people who do the minimum because they aren’t invested in the work, meaning they may simply be working for the paycheck. I can’t really fault them because not everyone is passionate about their work: their main interests may be outside the office, whether family, hobbies or volunteer work. Sometimes they do enough work for their employer to be satisfied. Other times, they slide below the minimum and may be let go. 

Framing this another way, silent quitting means having a life outside of work. As someone recently said to me at a funeral we attended, “I should be at work, but I decided that on my death bed, I’m not going to feel bad that I missed work, but I will feel bad that I wasn’t there for my friend in her time of need.” It also means that a person wants to be paid for the hours they work. These workers may be saying, “Don’t pretend that I’m being paid X amount of money for X amount of hours because I am really being paid far less.” There is a difference between doing extra work occasionally to help your employer succeed and being regularly taken advantage of. Silent quitting may simply be these people’s way of saying, “I’ve had enough.” That’s not quitting: that’s living a balanced life, something to which we should aspire.