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The ‘quiet quitting’ crisis in human resources

The ‘quiet quitting’ crisis in human resources

Picture of Plan A

Plan A

Soft skills -Man in hard hat and tie yelling phone

One of the interesting conversations I had at the 2022 Civil Contractors New Zealand conference in Christchurch was with someone who was concerned at what they saw as a lack of ‘human resources’ knowledge amongst the small and medium-enterprises (SMEs).

I was thinking about that recently in the context of the latest human resources ‘crisis – that of ‘quiet quitting’, which is basically when employees are not going ‘above and beyond’ anymore (we used to talk about this as ‘withdrawing discretionary effort’).

Is there a lack of human resources knowledge in our business community?

In the technical sense, failure to manage the ‘hygiene factors’ of human resources can prove pretty fatal, such as not having compliant employment contracts in place. When you are running a medium sized business, sometimes the necessities such as making payroll get in the way of niceties such as ‘hygiene’ matters. However, like many ‘hygiene’ matters – technical human resources compliance can be critical.

What about the ‘soft-skills’ part of human resources management? 

In the likes of the civil construction sector, survival often requires achieving margins originally estimated by someone sitting in an office. Managing workforce delivery in line with those estimated hours and rates across work programmes is no mean feat of resource management and requires pretty good innate human resources management ability.

But there is always an ‘extra’ return sought in business. And achieving that ‘extra’ is often about engaging employees’ discretionary efforts, which is the flip side to the currently trending ‘quiet quitting’ crisis.

When I first ran human resources in one of our larger infrastructure firms the goal of eliminating ‘re-work’ was one such ‘extra’ return sought. This led me to recall ‘the law of the hog’, from my earlier years in organisation performance consulting. 

The origins of this term are described in one of my favourite books with the long title: The Balancing Act, Mastering the Competing Demands of Leadership (Patterson, 1996). The authors describe research they were doing at a plywood plant where they asked an employee what happened when they had a relationship break-down with their boss.

The answer was ‘The hog!’, which was a machine that took scrap wood and ground it into pulp. Whenever they had a disagreement with their boss, they waited for them to leave the factory then threw finished veneer into the hog, upsetting the productivity and yield figures by which their boss was measured. So, the Law of the Hog relates to, ineffective or insulting influence strategies having the counter result of unpredictable and costly consequences. (As an aside, the story got more peculiar as it turned out the bosses – who figured out this was going on – would climb the rafters in the factory to catch people in the act. Employee’s, aware of this, put their own people in place to watch the rafters).

That thought led to investing heavily in developing the ‘people skills’ of our front-line managers (which included skills around literacy and decision making). The result was very positive with good feedback from front line supervisors, better quality work, customer satisfaction, and measurable uplift in engagement. And – reduced rework!

The alternative, with poorly trained leadership is costly, especially in this country where front-line staff seem to have finely honed BS detectors!

A while ago I was working with an HSE consultant who related a story about a business owner who had an employee who suffered a serious work injury. Rather than work on his safety culture, his attitude was summed up in the $100k he set aside ‘in case of being fined for ‘safety incidents’ (I kid you not). Interestingly he also complained vociferously that his ‘staff are all useless’ as they kept damaging his vehicles (the Law of the Hog playing out right there!).

It’s not just about productivity of course. We’ve all seen the research around why people leave their jobs, the top three reasons consistently showing up as being (1) toxic company culture, (2) remuneration, and (3) Poor management. The top reasons people leave their jobs are in the hands of their direct bosses – and those soft ‘people’ skills good human resources management should develop.

Having done my share of checking with referees provided by tenderers in their tender submissions, I can tell you one thing that really stands out to me is how keenly aware some clients are of the culture of their service providers. It shows up in on the ground performance and employee retention (clients hate seeing turnover in the ranks of their contracted service providers – especially front-line managers). They know that is about leadership and, in a well-run procurement process, that can translate into actual or implicit risk weightings against potential service providers.