In the movie Hook, Peter Banning returns to his magical origins, as Peter Pan, to rescue his children, kidnapped by Captain Hook. Hook uses the kidnapping to lure and capture Peter for one final battle. Hook, who lost his hand because of Peter, wants this battle as revenge. But Peter can’t meet the challenge. He’s an overweight middle-aged lawyer now, who lost his magical powers after abandoning Neverland for family life and then becoming a workaholic. Unable to have his war, Hook orders his pirate crew to just kill Peter and his children for not complying with his request. “Kill them. Kill them all.”
Organizations have a way of killing employees too. While they might not murder people outright, they do have a way of implicitly and explicitly imposing unhealthy demands on employees. For example, Booz Allen expected me to work on a project for 12 to 15 hours every day – every single day — for 18 months. I was young, new in my career, and driven to meet this challenge, despite its unhealthy consequences. I almost died after suffering a systemic blood-borne bacterial infection from working this hard. I did not take, or should I say, have the time to care for myself.
My employment contract did not specify or require such a commitment. One could say committing to this unhealthy work schedule was discretionary. Today, if I declined this discretionary work and adhered only to the obligatory terms of my employment agreement, I’d be accused of quiet quitting.
At best, quiet quitting is a derisive employer term used to accuse employees of complying strictly to the terms of their employment agreement and doing nothing more. This is also a very strange term coined during a 2009 economics symposium on Venezuelans’ diminishing ambition.
At the same time, Venezuelan national leader, President Hugo Chávez, was well on his way to becoming an authoritarian ruler, responsible for human rights violations, including threats to free speech, civil society, and democratic governance. You might say Chávez ran a nation with explicit and implicit unhealthy demands. Of course, Venezuelan organizations are not all led by authoritarians. However, Venezuelans quiet quitting or complying only with their employment contract, made sense, given their political situation. Despite its history, quiet quitting is now a post-Pandemic workforce term making the rounds in leadership consulting and professional publications.
Employees going beyond their employment contract, performing discretionary work, needs further examination. Since forever, no one has yet reduced complex work like professional jobs into a complete set of finite tasks. There are always discretionary and unspoken job duties for physicians, lawyers, engineers and so on.
Those who do both the obligatory tasks and the discretionary ones receive nonmonetary rewards, promotions, raises, preferential treatment, and more. Don’t for a moment think employees, who comply with obligatory work requirements only receive the same employer treatment as those who go the extra mile and perform countless discretionary tasks in addition to the mandatory ones. Often, those that do the discretionary have a passion for their work and their organization. They deserve, and should receive, accolades as well as compensatory benefits from their employer.
Not everyone has a passion for their job and that’s ok too. In fact, many may choose not to participate in discretionary work because they have passions or obligations outside of their employment.
In other cases, discretionary work amounts to doing nothing more than paying homage to leadership’s power over employees. This is particularly common amongst white patriarchal organizations, who maintain a vast array of discretionary work for women and people of color. For example, women must look good, keep their opinion to themselves, not have children or other home obligations, remain quiet when a credit-stealing man takes their idea, and more. This type of leader doesn’t understand what is wrong with an organization controlled by white men, let alone how to respond when confronted with the implications of their profound harm. The dominance of the white male institutionalized power structure burdens women and people of color to comply with discretionary work demands, risk negatively affecting their career if they try to remedy the situation, or comply while feeling invisible, silenced, angry, and resentful. If they don’t comply, leadership feels justified offering lower pay and benefits; denigrating with slurs, sexual innuendo, and harassment; hiring, promoting, and firing based on prejudicial practices, and so on.
Generations of women and people of color suffer insidious micro versions of aggression and stress that contributes to poor health among minorities and people of color, resulting in increased rates of depression, prolonged stress and trauma, anxiety, even heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It kills them.
Employers or leaders hold a position of power over their employees. For example, managers hold positional authority over employees when they ask these direct reports to perform either obligatory or discretionary tasks. Consequently, employers must use great care when communicating with their employees.
Communication starts with understanding that when you speak, only you know what you’re thinking. Likewise, only the recipient of what you say knows what their thinking. Given these two factors, all communication must start with trying to understand the perspective of the other person. Leaders must express, model, and reinforce all communication, particularly with employees, in this way.
Leadership equals power. Working with this power together, employees and employers can achieve value for each other and those they serve while avoiding the overwhelming feeling that leaders wants to dominate and “kill them, kill them all.”
Wikipedia. “Quiet Quitting,” 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiet_quitting.
EveryCRSReport.com. “Venezuela: Issues for Congress, 2009-2012.” https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R40938.html#_Toc367783050.
Torino, Gina. How Racism and Microaggressions Lead to Worse Health. Center for Health Journalism, November 10, 2017.