We are hearing about the looming threat of another recession in the news these days, and some industries are already trimming their workforce. Forbes layoff tracker reports that nearly 125,000 employees lost their jobs in 2022 as more than 120 large U.S. tech companies, banks and manufacturers implemented massive rounds of layoffs.
Some of those layoffs and firings happen outright, while others may be happening with a different approach called “quiet firing”.
The Dark Side of Quiet Quitting
Quiet quitting has been a recent buzzword and describes when workers meet their job descriptions by doing the minimum without going above and beyond. But the dark side of quiet quitting could be quiet firing. And just like quiet quitting, it’s really nothing new. The difference is today’s spotlight on these toxic workplace trends sparked by the pandemic.
Quiet firing is when an organization, whether intentionally or inadvertently, creates a hostile work environment that encourages people to leave on their own, saving the company the cost of paying severance and unemployment insurance. A study by Pew Research Center found that the majority of workers who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because of low pay, a lack of growth opportunities or feeling disrespected. A 2022 study reported in Harvard Business Review specifically asked 1,000 American workers about their experience with quiet firing. The responses outlined these warning signs, among others:
- Demotion or change of job description
- Promising but not delivering new opportunities
- Setting unreasonable goals
- Passing up employees for promotions
- Pay cuts
- Eliminating bonuses or raises
- Increasing workloads to unattainable levels
- Not providing performance feedback
- “Ghosting” or repeatedly cancelling meetings
- Not giving credit to employees when it is due
How to Avoid Being Quietly Fired
So, what can you do if you feel that you are being quietly fired?
The first step is to look inward. Are you overanalyzing the situation? Are other employees experiencing similar treatment in the workplace? Next, examine how you are performing. If you think you are performing at the level you should be, but your manager seems to disagree, make it clear you want to succeed. Ask for goals and measures.
This can be tricky since some companies haven’t returned to the same level of progress checks we had pre-pandemic. It seems as if people are just waking up now and realizing – wait, we haven’t been doing that this whole time?! That means we need to raise our level of awareness. Maybe employees are feeling like they are being quietly fired when it’s simply due to a lack of awareness. Management should make an intention to bring back performance management tools and candid conversations if they have been missing.
It can be helpful to keep your own record of achievements and accomplishments. At the same time, keep evidence of anytime you feel mistreated in the form of emails, feedback, etc.
Break your silence. Talk to your manager directly to try to fix the issue. Ask for growth opportunities, give examples to illustrate how engaged you are and continue to push them to provide a workplace environment that meets your commitment. If that doesn’t work, you can always go to the HR department with your concerns.
A Management Issue, Not Employee Issue
Being mistreated or ignored at work can be demoralizing and take a huge toll on someone’s mental health. Quiet firing has been associated with workplace bullying or even gaslighting, but it’s important to remember that it’s usually more telling of a company culture or management work ethic issue than an individual employee matter.
But it will be how you manage the situation that makes the difference. I’ve worked with many clients who have experienced some form of quiet firing over the years, but two come to mind because they are on the opposite ends of the spectrum of how to handle it.
Clara (name has been changed for privacy) started to experience some sidelining by her boss. She didn’t get her full annual bonus, and she was excluded from emails and meetings, among other situations that made her feel unappreciated and not respected. Clara doesn’t really respect or trust her boss, and she has started to see the writing on the wall, but she’s being proactive about it. She recently started a new MBA program, and she’s taking steps to figure out the next steps for her career outside of her current company.
Andy (name has been changed for privacy) has a history of depression and his reaction to being ignored at work was to get really down on himself. The way he was treated in his workplace confirmed all his worst fears about himself, and he lived his life in a state of devastation. He couldn’t grasp that this situation could be temporary, and that he could take matters into his own hands.
Clara knows her organization isn’t the right place for her anymore. She knows she’s done a good job for this company but understands that now it is no longer the right fit for her. She’s going to do something to change it, so she is furthering her career in a different way. This is a great example of being a “Teflon leader,” someone who has a strong coating of armor (i.e. resilience) that doesn’t let things get to them personally. Even as she is being quietly fired, she is preparing for her exit on her own terms.
Andy ended up being fired, and not very quietly. But this situation has been a learning experience for him, and he’s in the process of interviewing with other companies.
If you find yourself in a quiet firing situation, determine whether you can change your mindset around your experience and try to transform your job into a position you can tolerate, or be prepared to leave.
The Absent Manager is Guilty Too
While quiet firing may happen in today’s workplace, it’s certainly not good leadership especially if it’s deliberate. But the scary thing is that some leaders may not even be aware that they are doing it. These managers aren’t necessary toxic or hurtful, but rather absent. They are not helping their employees perform or feel appreciated for their contributions, and they are avoiding the hard conversations.
Gallup’s research reveals three serious mistakes that often lead to quiet firing with stats to back them up:
- Managers don’t routinely discuss goal progress and give performance feedback. Only 22% of employees strongly agree that their manager continually helps them clarify work priorities, whereas nearly twice as many managers (43%) believe that they are actively helping employees set priorities.
- Managers withhold development. Only 37% of managers strongly agree that they invest in their employees’ development, and even fewer employees (25%) strongly agree that their manager invests in their professional development.
- Managers don’t give enough individualized recognition. Only 34% of employees strongly agree that their manager gives them recognition when they do good work. Conversely, 6 in 10 managers believe they do a good job of recognizing their direct reports when they do good work.
If the manager is absent, that can be a sensitive situation for the employee to navigate, depending on the company’s culture. The employee isn’t feeling seen by the absent manager which can be frustrating since their work and achievements are likely not being acknowledged. Each company structure is different, but if there is a way for you to get in front of other managers or leaders, find them to voice your concerns.
The Reciprocity of Quiet Firing and Quiet Quitting
There’s no doubt a quiet firing environment can lead to a quiet quitting culture, which points to a systemic issue. Regardless of how employees perform, quiet firing is not the answer for a strong culture or engaged workplace. This passive way of operating is so pervasive – it’s a really hard way to run a productive company. It ekes away at morale which could be reflected in revenue down the line. It also puts the company’s reputation in danger, poisons team trust and can even hurt your ability to keep customers happy.
Managers need to make an effort to engage with each team member so that they can learn, grow and improve. They need to stop avoiding conflict, crucial conversations and sticking their heads in the sand to remove themselves from the problem. Now more than ever, employers have a responsibility to protect the mental health of their workforce. A bigger, wider examination of the organization’s culture in order to do so should take place.
Instead of resorting to under-the-table maneuvers and shirking support and career development responsibilities to attempt to push people out the door, managers should create a healthy culture with regular communication with employees. Employees should feel that their organization is being captained by a leadership team who believes in bringing out the best in them. Professional training and/or executive coaching can be a tool for the entire team to help create an employee-centric organization.