South Africa

Quiet quitting in South Africa – a legal perspective

Asma Cachalia – senior associate and employment law expert at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr – said that while quiet quitting is not illegal in South Africa, employees are obliged to act in the best interests of the employer at all times.

The legality of quiet quitting hinges purely on the employees’ roles and responsibilities set out in their contracts.

Quiet quitting is not a new phenomenon and can be described as an employee doing the bare minimum in respect of their duties without necessarily acting in breach of their employment contract.

Reasons for this could be burnout from being overworked, perceiving saying “no” as having healthy workplace boundaries, or it could be pure laziness.

Experts attribute the resurgence of quiet quitting to the Covid-19 pandemic, which shifted the working environment from the office to their homes.

The shift caused employees to re-evaluate their lives as work and boundaries became blurred.

“The resurgence of the concept comes at a time where prioritising mental health, “switching off” and creating boundaries have become more important to employees,” said Cachalia.

“The result is that they are less inclined to dedicate additional time or effort to work-related matters,” she added.

Legal implications of quiet quitting

Cachalia says that, as long as the employee performs in line with the contract of employment, there is no basis for accusing the employee of quitting quietly.

“If an employee does what is necessary in terms of their contract of employment, then quiet quitting is not against the law or any policy within the company,” she said.

Cachalia said it’s also essential to distinguish between senior employees and those employed at a lower level.

“Senior management generally has a leadership role and must, by virtue of their positions, perform at a higher level or arguably go above and beyond,” Cachalia said.

“Junior employees, on the other hand, should they perform their duties as set out in their employment contracts, that would be sufficient, and employers should take no discipline or poor performance measures against them,” she added.

Cachalia noted that what is important is that the roles and responsibilities of employees are clearly defined in the contract of employment, including overtime should it be operationally required.

Impact of quiet quitting on employers and employees

Employers who depend on employees going “above and beyond” would be affected by quiet quitting as they would now experience reduced output or lack of productivity and low staff morale.

Cachalia noted that it is essential to note that employees in these situations do not commit any misconduct, and the employer does not necessarily have any recourse against them.

However, there are stimulations in law that require employees to act in the employer’s best interests at all times.

Cachalia said that failure to do so could result in disciplinary action if it constitutes misconduct or a poor performance enquiry.

Quitting quietly could also hurt an employee’s career long-term, as someone who is disconnected from their work culture or teammates doesn’t leave a good impression.

This impression could reflect in their recommendation letter or the communications of their prospective employer with their previous one.

Mitigating the risk of quiet quitting

While employees are the first to be pointed at as the problem, employers must be aware that lousy management could easily cause an employee to shut down.

Reasons for this could be that they are not being managed efficiently, so they are either overworked and stressed or underworked and bored.

“To expect employees to overwork themselves will potentially result in burnout and animosity towards the employer,” Cachalia said.

“To remedy this, the tried-and-tested approach would be to create incentives for employees to go the extra mile in their line of work and reward them accordingly,” she added.

Cachalia also noted that – given mental health issues are one of the reasons for quiet quitting – employers can engage with their employees more frequently to understand where their problems lie.

“This will enable them to identify potential solutions that will bolster productivity while ensuring that the employee remains healthy,” she explained.


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