By now, you’ve likely heard of ‘quiet quitting’, when employees commit to doing the bare minimum that their job description demands.
The term gained traction in March 2022 after an employment influencer, Brian Creely, used it on social media to describe ‘coasting’ at work – and the phenomenon has only grown in strength thanks to the financial frustrations brought about by the cost-of-living crisis. Whilst this refusal to go the extra mile can prove frustrating for employers – who are unable to find a legitimate reason for dismissal – it’s important for CEOs, directors and mid-managers alike to address these challenges with kindness, rather than responding in kind.
What is quiet firing and why do companies do it?
Michael Doolin, Managing Director, Clover HR explains that ‘Quiet firing’ is the latest backlash response to the workforce checking out. It generally consists of gradually nudging ‘problem’ employees out of the company rather than firing them outright – and it does much more harm than good. What’s more, your company could be engaging in this non-committal trend without even knowing.
As a form of conflict avoidance, it’s only natural that some should see this passive-aggressive push-out tactic as a convenient way of preventing a scene. They see little harm in withholding training, opportunities, recognition and support if it achieves the result that they want – getting certain individuals gone – without the need to take costly, public action that could potentially spook other members of staff. Yet they couldn’t be more wrong.
The dangers of quiet firing
The truth is that quiet firing is a type of gaslighting that can prove dangerously counterproductive for any company engaging in it. A form of neglect, it cultivates a toxic workplace environment across the board – not only prompting the intended ‘targets’ to up and leave but also causing more valued workers to hand in their notice. Other members of staff are not oblivious to the relentless criticism that goes into quiet firing and, once the bullying they have witnessed makes it into the public domain, you’ll find yourself facing an unfavourable reputation that decimates future recruitment prospects.
Of course, excessive critique may also be interpreted as harassment, potentially landing you in trouble with HR. Whilst we should all expect a certain degree of constructive criticism in the workplace – using feedback to fuel personal development within our role – negative comments become considerably less helpful when they form part of a consistent barrage of minor niggles picked up on to distress or embarrass the recipient. The inability to justify such behaviour in terms of the good of the company could therefore lead to personal injury claims and lawsuits – particularly if the victim of the unfair treatment is able to attribute their poor performance or detached behaviour to difficulties experienced as part of a disability. Indeed, the Equality Act states that those protected must be offered reasonable adjustments by their employers before disciplinary action is taken, making it even more difficult for you to disprove that your failure to address concerns directly constituted managerial misconduct.
Naturally, not all quiet firing behaviours are quite so transparent, with practices such as withholding opportunities, raises and promotions often being regarded as more innocent. Once again, however, this soon causes discontent to spread throughout your wider team. As soon as others notice that certain individuals are meeting their targets and mastering the skills required for their roles without reaping rewards for their efforts, it’s goodbye to team morale. People will lose all motivation, feeling that their own performance will fall under the radar as well. Giving staff members menial tasks that fall beneath their abilities and skillset is likely to have a similar effect.
What can employers do to safeguard productivity instead?
Whilst it may seem contradictory, focussing on fostering a more positive culture based around recognition and praise has proven to be one of the most effective ways of preventing quiet quitting. If staff members are thanked and encouraged before there is a problem in the first place, they are more likely to develop additional motivation to continually demonstrate commitment to your team.
One-to-one conversations about personal progress also help to combat employment fatigue. Take the time to sit down with each individual in your department to find out what they want to achieve and how they might feel more comfortable within your company. Fostering a culture of movement and advancement through career development plans will prevent people from losing interest and checking out.
It’s essentially about improved communication. Indeed, it’s regrettable that, in 2022, we find ourselves talking about trends like quiet quitting and quiet firing at all, as both reveal an uncomfortable truth about the state of the modern workplace: both employers and employees are losing the ability to connect with one another. Old-fashioned managerial structures focussed heavily on hierarchy are quite possibly to blame, particularly in an age of employee empowerment when worker experience is more central than ever. By opening up dialogues between workers and bosses, however, both parties will develop mutual respect and learn to work peacefully together, rather than perpetuating silent war.
This bid for increased equality brings us to our final point: remember that it’s not just employees who are guilty of disengaging. Whilst some instances of quiet firing are indeed carried out with malicious intent, the majority of situations come to a head as a result of absentee managers who are not actively engaged in training, recognising and rewarding their supervisees. Rather than allowing such inadvertent quiet-firing behaviours to continue, organisations must therefore invest time and effort into reengaging those at the top, too.
When employees at all levels are given the resources and environment they need to thrive in and enjoy their roles, you will soon start to see the benefits of investing in the futures of those who work for you. Take a stance to support mental health and implement better occupational health measures to improve behaviour and performance across the board. There are plenty of positive actions you can take to address workplace discontent – all of which should limit the need to roll up your sleeves and address dismissals head on in the rare event that your affirmative approach to challenge should fail.
Given that the effects of quiet firing can be so devastating across an organisation – and can come about without managers and employers even realising it – it’s essential that you remain attentive to company culture and call in for HR help to create a more positive workplace environment however you can. If bosses and workers are to move forward in the most productive way possible, both quiet quitting and quiet firing must – loudly and clearly – be consigned to the past.