Why employers need to clamp down on quiet firing

The passive-aggressive tactics that some managers use to disengage from unfavoured employees can be dangerously counterproductive. Employers would do well to ensure that they aren’t encouraging such behaviour
Businesswoman under pressure as managers look on and discuss her in the background

Doing the bare minimum to get by at work has gone global, but it’s not only employees who are guilty of disengaging. While so-called quiet quitting has attracted much media attention in recent months, another phenomenon, quiet firing, has reared its ugly head too.

Quiet firing is a way of nudging an employee out of a company using a set of passive-aggressive management techniques to disengage from them in the hope that they will become disaffected enough to leave of their own accord.

The usual rationale for such an approach is that the individual is underperforming or simply isn’t ‘a good fit’ for the organisation. Rather than create conflict and upset the apple cart, the employee’s manager will simply withdraw from the relationship. They may stop inviting the employee to key meetings and copying them into important emails, for instance. Other common tactics include assigning them a particularly difficult, demanding client or going the other way and giving them a lot of menial work. Denying the victim opportunities to advance their career in the organisation is another typical move. 

The end goal is always the same: to frustrate the employee and make them realise that they would be better off working for another, more appreciative, organisation. 

Passive-aggressive management is on the rise

Quiet firing is by no means a new phenomenon. Managers have applied its dark arts for decades, but the emerging debate about the ‘always-on’ work culture has thrust the practice into the spotlight for criticism. 

With many British businesses seeking to slash costs as the economy falters, an upsurge in cases of quiet firing is likely. Employers may be looking for an excuse to nudge people out without having to stump up for severance packages. 

Khyati Sundaram is CEO of Applied, an ethical recruitment platform whose clients have included the England and Wales Cricket Board, Comic Relief and Penguin Random House. She is in no doubt that quiet firing is “being fuelled by the uncertain economic climate. For managers under pressure to make cuts, freezing employees out might offer a convenient alternative to having uncomfortable conversations.”

There’s plenty of research evidence indicating that managerial behaviour can affect employee turnover, notes Dr Jaclyn Menendez, consulting manager at HR service provider Talogy. 

“What’s interesting is the idea that managers may be weaponising this influence to ensure that certain employees quit,” she says. “This is definitely a new theory, but one that seems to be gaining support.”

For managers under pressure to make cuts, freezing employees out might offer a convenient alternative to having uncomfortable conversations

LinkedIn News conducted a survey in August to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of quiet firing. It found that 48% of 20,000 respondents had witnessed the practice, while 35% had experienced it. 

As many as 13% of respondents didn’t believe that the phenomenon existed, which comes as no surprise to Menendez. As its name suggests, quiet firing is often a subtle process, she says, so it can go undetected by those who aren’t being targeted. 

Consider favouritism and the formation of cliques. While an employee who finds themselves outside the circle might assume that it was something they said or did that alienated their colleagues, being excluded could actually be an early warning sign that a quiet firing is in progress, Menendez says.

The problem for that individual is that they can’t assume that they’re being treated unfairly, because they might be underperforming and/or hard to manage after all. On top of this, the decision to nudge them out may have been made by the HR department and the matter could already be out of their manager’s hands.

Eliminating opportunities for quiet firing

When people do detect that a colleague is being quietly fired, it does little for their engagement levels, especially when they consider that they might be on the receiving end next if their firm is seeking to slash its employment costs. 

How can employers avoid engaging in this unhealthy practice? First, they may need to rethink their approach to recruitment, so that employees are less likely to underperform in the first place. So says Hannah Copeland, HR business partner at employment law consultancy WorkNest.

“Poor organisational design and development potentially cause businesses to create the wrong roles. They then neglect the post-holders’ development because such roles become easy to sideline,” she suggests. 

For this reason, employers need to improve education about diversity, equality and inclusion, while ensuring that there are equal opportunities for training and development. Implementing transparent access to performance reviews and promotions would be a good place to start, Sundaram suggests.

“Since ingrained biases can’t be eradicated completely, employers should look to eliminate opportunities for these to show up,” she says.

Such biases caused people from ethnic minorities to be far more likely to lose their jobs when firms were slashing overheads during the early stages of the Covid crisis. “These risk pushing marginalised groups to the front of the quiet firing line again in the face of a recession,” Sundaram adds.

Employers should also watch for signs of managerial burnout, Menendez warns. Managers under extreme pressure to hit targets may have neither the time nor the patience to deal properly with difficult situations involving their staff and may resort to quiet firing as a relatively hassle-free option. 

The importance of culture

Rather than using passive-aggressive tactics and hoping that employees get the message, managers should adopt a more grown-up approach, she says. 

First, they need to ask themselves why they don’t feel comfortable having honest conversations with the employee in question. If there are problems with the quality of their work, for instance, these need to be handled in a direct and constructive way. This should involve setting realistic goals, holding regular performance-review meetings and offering proper support and guidance. 

These meetings should also be a chance for the employee to share any concerns they may have. Both parties can then work together to seek a mutually satisfactory solution, such a change of role in the organisation.

“It’s only by understanding what’s driving quiet firing in your company that you can build effective strategies to combat it,” says John Backhouse, head of people science at WorkBuzz, a specialist in employee engagement.

What’s more, the benefit of developing a workplace where employees feel comfortable approaching their managers and being open with them leads to a healthier culture in which there is neither quiet firing nor quiet quitting, he adds. 

Copeland agrees. The two trends feed one another in a self-perpetuating vicious circle. A healthy culture of openness limits the amount of ammunition an employer might have at their disposal to nudge an employee out of the door. 

“Good culture breeds the right practices and behaviour,” she says. “Building a high-performance culture means that quiet firing won’t arise because the systems, policies and processes in the business won’t enable it.”