EngagementCultureQuiet firing: Let’s call it what it is – toxic workplace culture

Quiet firing: Let’s call it what it is – toxic workplace culture

Quiet firing is being positioned as employers fighting back against the quiet quitting trend. But Natal Dank argues it’s important to call this out for what it is – a manifestation of bias, bullying and toxic workplace culture.

Quiet firing: Let’s call it what it is – toxic workplace culture

Quiet firing is being positioned as employers fighting back against the quiet quitting trend. But it’s important to call this out for what it is – a manifestation of bias, bullying and toxic workplace culture.

We also need to be careful not to ignore the important power dynamics at play. Quiet quitting reflects an employee choosing to do just enough while they seek out a new career move or follow an external passion.

Quiet firing on the other hand is deliberate and controlled by the employer. This is managing out rather than managing up.

If someone feels they have no choice but to quit because of a hostile work environment, then surely something is wrong.

What is quiet firing?

Quiet firing can take many different forms but some of the main signs include:

  • Constantly overlooked for a promotion or salary increase despite doing everything that is asked
  • Shifting more senior responsibilities to other team members or less experienced colleagues
  • Continuously overlooked for high-profile projects or stretch assignments
  • Deliberately withdrawing learning and development opportunities
  • Being placed on an unfair or unreasonable performance improvement plan
  • Changing expectations, goals or workload without any input from you
  • Lack of direct and timely feedback or unexpected and surprising negative feedback
  • Constantly avoiding open and honest conversations about performance, career development or work relationships.

Essentially, what we’re saying is that quiet firing is consciously not giving one person the same opportunities of another with the hope that they’ll come to hate their job and leave.

What’s worse is that in a recent LinkedIn poll on quiet firing a massive 48% of respondents said they had witnessed a person being quietly fired. An additional 38% has experienced it firsthand. Only 13% of respondents didn’t think quiet firing was a real thing.

Is quiet firing new?

No. Indeed, the person attributed for starting the discussion, Bonnie Dilber, Recruiting Manager at Zapier, did so with the aim of flipping the perspective. Instead of worrying about quiet quitting, Bonnie urges organizations to assess management practices and identify situations where people are fed up and ready to walk because of bad managers who:

  • never give feedback or praise
  • constantly reshuffle 1-1s
  • are unable or ill-equipped to talk about career progression
  • don’t keep employees in the loop about critical business information that impacts their job

While most of the blame for this type of behavior sits with poor management practices it can also reflect pressure placed on individual managers.

Supporting managers to develop the necessary skills to build psychologically safe team environments is crucial. Too often managers are promoted into roles due to their technical or business knowledge, rather than people skills and quickly find themselves out of their depth. Spending time discussing feedback and coaching then becomes an ‘add on’ rather than a core element of the job. Added to this dilemma is a continuous squeeze on managers time which further reduces their capacity to lead teams well.

Is quiet firing bad?

Yes, and we need to call it out.

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We recently looked at quiet quitting and had a mixture of responses about the definition. There was also a lot of empathy and understanding expressed around the topic. Many got in touch to say, ‘that’s me!’ or ‘I have someone in my team doing that, what can I do?’.

Many more added to the debate and offered personal views on why people might feel inclined to quietly quit. These ranged from a lack of purpose and meaning in their job, to a wider sense of ambiguity in a world increasingly characterized by a cost-of-living crisis and climate change. Overall, there was real sense of compassion for people advocating mental health over one-the-job burnout.

There was also an intense discussion on whether quiet quitting was really that bad. If someone performs well and gets the expected job done, why should we expect people to go above and beyond the normal day job and do unpaid overtime.

Quiet firing is different. At its most extreme, it equals constructive dismissal and is, at least in some countries, illegal. In many situations people lack the resources or ability to take counteraction. And this is the point. In its crudest form, it plays on an unequal power dynamic and bias.

It follows that quiet firing is also a DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) issue since underrepresented groups a more often a target. A recent UK survey of 3.9 million minority ethnic workers found that over 120,000 had quit as a result of racism in the workplace.   

What can HR do?

Help managers trust their people

A lot of inspiration can be taken from Google’s Oxygen project that used an evidence-based approach to prove the worth of managers in an organization of skeptical engineers. The project identified core behaviors that helped a manager serve a team effectively. These included:

  • being a good coach
  • empowering the team
  • not micromanaging
  • creating an inclusive and safe environment
  • communicating a clear vision to collaboration

At the heart of this approach is viewing managers as servant leaders and holding them accountable through regular feedback from their team.

Be clear that management is about people not just business decisions

Consider personality and cultural fit when recruiting servant leaders. In general, you should be seeking out people skilled in coaching and enabling others, rather than experts on how the job is done. It’s time to bust the rounded leader myth. In the vast majority of cases leaders can’t be everything – a great coach, as well as a great strategist or technical lead.

Consider a more skills-based approach where candidates with good people capabilities take up coaching-linked roles and technical or strategic leads take up individual contributor roles. 

Agile ways of working

Support ways of working that ensure frequent check-ins and touch points where people can discuss work progress, give feedback and access coaching.

Agile ways of working (for example applying Scrum or Kanban) encourage a lot of techniques and rituals that foster these positive behaviors. For example, frequent check-ins and team retrospectives harness continuous improvement and proactively build psychologically safe environments.

The values of Agile also advocate that managers also don’t have all the answers. Why hire great people to then tell them what to do? Great leaders build multi-skilled and diverse teams able to self-organize and discover the answers together.

Build a feedback culture

A feedback-rich culture underpins a healthy and trusting workplace. Being able to discuss failure, learn from mistakes and objectively assess performance sits at the heart of innovation and continuous improvement.

The best type of feedback to support career development and growth is strength-based and just-in-time. Indeed, if someone isn’t performing well or is clearly a bad fit for a role it indicates a need to have an immediate and honest conversation. McKinsey research further supports this need to consciously build the skills and tools necessary to unlock the true value of effective feedback within organizations.

Diversity, equity and inclusionDEI

Stop thinking of DEI as a goal in itself. Apart from being the right thing to do, achieving good DEI is a clear and demonstratable business benefit. Diverse teams are more creative and productive. Incidentally, by diversity we don’t just mean gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation but also age, social background, neuro non-typical and differently-abled. Help managers understand the value of difference and how to build a sense of belonging within their teams.

Pay people well and reward impact

Don’t make pay the only reason why employees stay. Apart from any other reason, this is easiest to replicate and so keeping retention levels high through salary alone is fighting a losing battle. Bear in mind that numerous surveys have found that if you ask a manager why someone left, they’ll say it was because of pay and if you ask the leaver, they’ll invariably say it was because of the manager.

In the current economic climate, it’s crucial that people are paid a base salary that covers the essentials in life. Then aim to link any additional reward to impact not just output or presentism and celebrate team results not just individual.

Forget quiet firing – Build great workplaces instead

Let’s end the debate now. Quiet firing is not a good thing and amounts to bullying in a toxic work environment.

HR can help managers trust their employees by proactively building servant leaders. By embracing Agile ways of working organizations can also start to foster positive behaviors, like daily check-ins and regular team retrospectives, that underpin open and honest conversations.

If all this comes together, we can build workplaces that are great for people, great for customers and great for the planet.

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