Tackle Quiet Firing: the other “quiet” trend

Careers  Leadership
10 October, 2022

The passive-aggressive cousin of quiet quitting can be as insidious

I was speaking recently to an ex-colleague. He was feeling frustrated. He had begun working with a new boss. While on the surface things seemed to be fine, he was feeling side-lined. He felt that his boss was excluding him from some meetings and not copying him on emails that related to his responsibilities. This person was perplexed. To him, his performance seemed to be fine. He was wondering whether this was just a passing phase or whether his new boss was trying to give him a signal to look for something else.

Last week, I had written about “quiet quitting”, a recently coined term that refers to employees doing just enough work to meet the requirements of their job description.

This week, my messages focuses on a related concept that’s has also been trending – “quiet firing”.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal elaborates:

Much like quiet quitting, the trendy term for reducing effort, quiet firing refers to minimizing an employee’s significance. Companies have always had subtle ways to nudge people out the door. Tactics include sidelining them by cutting responsibilities or denying promotions and raises to make someone miserable enough to leave – what the gang in legal calls a “constructive discharge” and the rest of us know as managing out.

Several HR experts say this trend is picking up slowly but surely, partly in response to quiet quitting. Employees who stop going the extra mile or become psychologically uninvested in their jobs are at risk of being quietly fired.

To push such team members towards quitting, supervisors may use a combination of tactics like shutting down communication, withholding guidance, and putting off promotions.

Stuck in a dead-end role, the employee ends up feeling overlooked, excluded and demoralised, making them likely to resign. This way, the company doesn’t have to deal with the financial and emotional consequences of actually firing them.

A recent LinkedIn poll on quiet firing received over 20,000 votes, with 48% of respondents saying they’ve witnessed this practice at work while another 35% confirmed that they’ve personally experienced it.

The fact that quiet quitting and quiet firing are simultaneously on the rise is not a coincidence. The pandemic acted as a wake-up call for employees and employers alike – but with so much uncertainty all around, most didn’t take drastic action during this period. Now, with life returning to normal, both individuals and businesses are in assessment mode once again. As the WSJ piece points out: 

Many companies are renewing their focus on what employees put out at the same time that a lot of workers are recalibrating what they put in.

A double-edged sword 

The benefits of quiet firing are being hotly debated. Some say it’s high time companies take a long, hard look at their payrolls and let go of quiet quitters. After all, businesses will naturally be less invested in employees who are less productive. Trimming underperformers is even more relevant given that many experts are predicting a recession in key global economies in the near future.

On the other hand, is it possible that some companies are undergoing “productivity paranoia”? Just because employees have limited their working hours and out-of-scope tasks doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their core jobs well. Instead of putting excessive focus on chair-time, leaders should shift their attention to outcomes – the best metric to really understand an employee’s contribution.

Quiet firing also creates a fresh set of problems. The passive-aggressive tactics used by managers can create a toxic workplace environment, where communication is hampered and resentment runs high. Even if only 1-2 employees are being quietly fired, other team members will probably get caught in the crossfire and negativity, which can lead to a breakdown in trust and stability.

Productivity optimisation or productivity paranoia?

Productivity perspectives among employers and employees are starkly different, especially when it comes to remote or hybrid work. A large-scale survey by Microsoft revealed the extent of the misalignment: 87% of employees felt they were just as effective when working from home, but 80% of managers said they had a “hard time knowing for sure that people are being productive”.

Interestingly, some prominent business leaders have sounded the alarm against productivity paranoia, most notably Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who said: 

“We have to get past what we describe as ‘productivity paranoia’…. Leaders think their employees are not productive, whereas employees think they are being productive and in many cases even feel burnt out. One of the most important things for us in this new world of work and hybrid work is to bridge this paradox.”

At the other end of this spectrum, we find companies implementing surveillance programmes to track productivity and weed out poor performers. According to Gartner, 16% of employers are now using non-traditional technologies to monitor their employees more frequently.

Are you in the line of fire?

If you quietly quit at work, your manager may start viewing you in a less positive light. Several signs can point to such a change, like being left out of meetings you used to be invited to and not being offered any new projects. Keep in mind that these aren’t always red flags! It’s also possible that your manager respects your boundaries and is satisfied with your performance. If you note a sudden and marked change though, it could indicate that you’ve fallen out of favour.

Leaders aren’t immune to quiet firing either. Some companies that refrained from making leadership changes during the pandemic are now starting to look for alternatives. Incumbent leaders might be intentionally hindered and rendered ineffective for months before finally being edged out – a classic case of quiet firing.

Those who’ve been coasting along for a while without incident may think they’re safe – but could easily find themselves on the dreaded “firing list” maintained by many supervisors. In the WSJ article mentioned above, Leslie Tarnacki, senior VP of global human resources at WorkForce Software, says: 

“Managers do like to have that cushion if they see that cuts may be coming down the road. They may have employees that are considered mediocre, but keeping them around for now makes having to deal with those cuts a little bit easier.” 

Suggestions for employees 

If you think you’re at risk of being quietly fired, here are four steps you can take:

1. Make your case.

Approach your manager and advocate for yourself, backed with data and tangible examples of performance over the last few months. Your goal should be to demonstrate that your engagement and output remain satisfactory, even if you’re no longer burning the midnight oil.

2. Re-assess your output.

While it’s good to strive for work-life balance, doing the bare minimum from 9-to-5 is not a great way to spend your days. Honestly assess your own contributions at work. Are your deliverables truly up to the mark? Could increasing commitment actually make you happier? Stepping up your game could be the answer to saving your job. But if you feel totally disengaged from work, then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.

3. Communicate.

Jessica Kriegel, Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners, identifies poor communication as a key cause of quiet firing. In a Time article, she says: 

“If a manager is conflict avoidant, or afraid of having a difficult conversation, then they might not…have the guts to tell the truth about how you are perceived within the organization and the work that you’re doing.”

In such a situation, the employee may have to take the reins of a difficult conversation. If your manager is showing signs of quietly firing you, approach them directly to ask if you still have any opportunities for growth and success at the organisation.

4. Do your homework.

Learn about your company’s processes and norms around promotions and pay hikes, so you can have a productive discussion with your manager. The article in Time suggests the following: 

Workers should familiarize themselves with the protocols for promotions and raises at work by reading the employee handbook… This can make daunting conversations about progression easier to navigate.

Suggestions for leaders

As an article in HR Morning says: 

Quiet Firing – when management intentionally distances employees from opportunities to grow and succeed – is the exact opposite of anything HR professionals and leadership teams want to do. 

As a leader, quiet firing should not be your go-to strategy. Instead, focus on tackling the root causes of the twin problems of quiet quitting and quiet firing. Here are 3 recommendations to consider:

1. Align expectations.

More often than not, the problem arises and then festers because you and your team member may not be on the same page. To get the best out of your direct reports, it’s crucial to have a one-on-one discussion where you clearly communicate key expectations, lay out core responsibilities and get their alignment. Now that we’re out of pandemic mode, it’s time to have more of these conversations.

2. Practice healthy communication.

If you hate having tough or uncomfortable conversations, you’re more likely to have quiet quitters on your team – and you’re also more likely to resort to quiet firing! Direct and clear communication is a critically important skill for leaders to develop, whether through self-learning or coaching.

Establish best practices like regular check-ins and constructive feedback, so your team members stay engaged, have the chance to course-correct when required, and are able to share challenges that might be impeding productivity.

3. Address the quiet quitting trend.

If you have multiple quiet quitters on your team, it’s time to ask why. Is there a mismatch between their role and capabilities? Are they clear on their core job functions? Are they receiving proper feedback, as well as growth and learning opportunities? Without the right conditions, it’s tough for employees to feel excited and bring their best selves to work. It’s up to leaders to create an environment that facilitates passion, engagement and healthy communication.

Quiet quitting and quiet firing should be addressed as part of a broader dialogue between employers and employees. Transparent communication, clear expectation-setting, and personal accountability – from leaders as well as team members – are key to creating a healthy workplace where people can thrive and deliver their best work.


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