You found our guide to quiet firing.
Quiet firing is when management creates non-ideal work conditions to make an underperforming employee quit. Examples of these tactics include pushing off promotions and isolating employees. This concept is a controversial, non-confrontational way to convince employees to leave a company, yet it is not an advisable approach due to many downsides.
This guide covers:
- the meaning of quiet firing
- signs of quiet firing
- reasons for quiet firing
- effects of quiet firing
- ways to prevent quiet firing
Here is what you need to know.
What is quiet firing?
Quiet firing is when management makes a workplace unappealing in the hopes that an employee eventually quits. This concept is a passive-aggressive approach to performance management. Rather than confront an employee and terminate the team member or devise an improvement plan, employers gradually make the work environment unbearable to that teammate until the team member eventually leaves willingly. Supervisors do not necessarily create a hostile work environment, yet the job becomes so unfulfilling and hopeless that employees see no other recourse than to switch companies.
Signs of quiet firing
The signs of quiet firing are often subtle and easy to doubt or overlook. However, there are some ways to know whether you are being quietly fired.
1. Stalled promotion and advancement
One of the most often-cited signs of quiet firing is a lack of career advancement. Targeted employees may get repeatedly passed over for promotions and opportunities. In healthy workplaces, leaders give guidelines about what employees need to accomplish to move to the next level of their careers. However, in quiet firing situations, managers keep moving the needle or saying, “you were not the best fit for this position,” or “maybe next time.” Leadership may dangle the possibility of promotion without it ever coming to fruition or may just say, “we will see.” Whatever the approach, the result is stalled growth. Quietly fired employees often watch peers move up around them while staying in one place indefinitely.
2. Denied raises
Compensation is a tool quiet firers yield, and more specifically, withhold, to oust employees from organizations. After deciding to quietly fire an employee, a manager may deny requests for raises or renegotiations of compensation packages. Or, the company may give a significantly lower pay increase than requested to appear in good faith. The employer may make vague promises about the possibility of raises in the future, but those raises never come. This refusal may be a strategic tactic to get employees to switch jobs in search of a better pay package.
3. Mundane work
Sometimes, quiet firers give their victims the worst work tasks. Almost every job has unpleasant elements or duties. However, getting consistently dull, meaningless, and awful tasks can be one of the warning signs of quiet firing. When assigning workloads, quiet firers may save the most undesirable jobs for their targets in hopes that the employee will get fed up and call it quits.
4. Increased bureaucracy
Quiet firers may add extra steps and even implement new policies to aggravate their targets. These bosses may add extra levels of review to add friction to what should be streamlined systems. Managers may become micromanagers. Simple processes become complicated. Tasks become downright aggravating or outright impossible. Workers spend a disproportionate amount of time on administrative tasks that take time away from other responsibilities. Everything becomes much harder than it needs to be, and employees quickly grow frustrated.
5. Halting of new tasks and projects
One of the characteristics of quiet firing is slowed growth, and a halting of new tasks and projects is one such indicator. Quiet firers often believe that employees do not have more to offer and stop spending time training or challenging them. While other employees get chances to lead new projects or claim new duties, these employees are stuck doing the same old. Quietly fired employees may ask for new challenges and chances to shine, yet managers respond that it is not in the cards. While colleagues get dynamic duties and interesting new projects, quietly fired employees are stuck in place doing more of the same.
6. Pushback on promises
Dangling promises are one of the most common red flags of quiet firing. Rather than deny employees outright, offending managers keep altering the timeline and moving the finish line. Instead of saying “no,” bosses say “not now.” Promotions or raises need another six months. Managers may constantly cancel or reschedule conversations such as performance reviews or pay negotiations. When faced with a request or question, leaders may repeat an endless chorus of “let me check” and never return with an answer. “We’re working on it,” and “it’s coming” are mantras of the quiet firer, yet these promises remain unfulfilled. Most offenders expect that employees will eventually give up hope and either stop asking or quit and, in most cases, they are correct.
7. No feedback from managers
A lack of feedback puts the “quiet” in quiet firing. Offenders often mark employees as lost causes and view coaching as a waste of time. These bosses may skip 1:1 or performance reviews and cease giving positive recognition and praise. Instead, the managers may give vague instructions or leave out important information. When team members ask for constructive criticism, the bosses may say, “you are doing fine,” and decline to give suggestions to improve. Or, leaders may disappear altogether and be slow to respond to messages if they bother to respond. There may be a total communication breakdown or the bare minimum of replies to avoid accusations of ghosting. If these bosses give performance reviews, they often decline to elaborate on their answers or offer constructive suggestions, simply giving a score instead.
Here are tips on giving feedback as a manager.
8. Lack of support from management
Lack of support from management is one of the most significant warning signs of quiet firing. Perhaps leaders consistently fail to provide vital information or resources to the employee, even upon request. Likely, managers withhold encouragement and make no efforts to motivate the employee or steer them toward new challenges and opportunities. The bosses offer no help in solving problems and decline to defend the team member from scrutiny or pushback from other team members. Management may not appear as an opponent to the employee, yet they certainly do not act like allies.
9. Exclusion from the team
Relationships are an important part of job satisfaction. Quiet firers use isolation as a tool in their arsenals. Beyond jilting the employee professionally, managers may encourage coworkers to distance themselves from the employee. This behavior does not always appear as overt cold-shouldering. Often, the alienation is subtle. Peers may be civil to the employee but avoid inviting them to social events like casual group lunches or after-hours trips to the bar. Coworkers might keep conversations as short as possible. Perhaps the boss often assigns group projects to other colleagues but sticks the target with solo work. Maybe the manager goes so far as to move the employee to an area of the office or a shift where they rarely interact with others. However discreet the tactics, the effects are still profound. The employee loses a sense of belonging to the whole and finds it easier to leave.
10. Overwork or underwork
Overwork or underwork can be red flags of quiet firing. For example, for hourly employees, managers may cut back scheduled shifts so that teammates struggle to get enough hours to maintain the same lifestyle. Or, a manager may under-assign tasks to eager employees so those team members spend much of the workday bored.
For salaried employees, bosses may mandate overtime or give employees more work than they can complete within working hours. In addition, sly managers may wait until the end of the day to assign time-sensitive or tough tasks or reach out after hours for non-urgent matters.
Management may even dramatically vary workloads from one week to the next so that hours fluctuate dramatically and employees have trouble planning their personal lives.
Quiet firers are usually careful not to overstep or under-schedule to the point of misconduct. Regardless, the result is the same. The employee does not feel happy about their workload and has no means to remedy the situation.
11. Unfair and unequal treatment
Unfair and unequal treatment is one of the catch-all signs of quiet firing. If all employees face these obstacles, then a dysfunctional workplace or mismanagement is more likely to blame than quiet firing. However, if only certain employees are subject to this treatment while others thrive, then management may be trying to gradually phase out particular team members. This behavior is often subtle and suspect enough to avoid clear-cut cases of discrimination, favoritism, or wrongful termination. However, when comparisons to colleagues’ treatment show stark differences, then quiet firing may be afoot.
Reasons for quiet firing
Here are some of the main reasons managers quietly fire.
1. Dubious Potential
One of the main reasons for quiet firing is that management believes an employee has plateaued or has lesser potential than peers. As a result, leaders decide not to invest more time or energy into the employee out of the belief that those efforts will not return worthwhile results. Unfortunately, sometimes an employee fails to meet expectations not due to a lack of passion or skill but rather a need for a different management style or level of support. Often, employees move on to other jobs and perform better under the guidance of more capable and supportive leaders.
2. Conflict Avoidance
Sometimes, managers quietly fire out of fear of having tough conversations with employees. Rather than risk a worker growing upset or angry at being fired, these managers gradually make the employee want to leave. Managers can avoid looking like the “bad guy” or causing a scene with this approach.
Organizations might also want to avoid potential trouble like claims of wrongful termination or harm to the employer brand.
Some companies strategically quiet fire to avoid having to create an exit or transition plan or pay out severance or unemployment. Rather than blame the company, these leaders put the responsibility on the employee to leave. Since hiring is costly, the company may also try to delay recruiting costs. The result is less cost and lfit for the organization but more employee stress.
Also, occasionally organizations practice quiet firing on higher-paid employees as a cost-cutting measure. Leaders may try to drive well-paid employees to quit to replace them with lower-cost, less experienced hires.
4. Personal Conflict
Occasionally, managers initiate quiet firing because they do not get along with employees. Perhaps working styles or personalities clash. Maybe the manager sides with other team members who dislike the worker. Leaders are human, and humans are subject to bias, bad feelings, and tribalism. Great leaders identify or work through these perceptions and remain subjective, supportive, and professional. However, less-than-stellar managers give in to their impulses and borderline bully certain employees until those team members leave of their own accord.
Quiet firing is not always intentional. Some of the signs of quiet firing are the results of poor management. For example, a lack of feedback or support might signify an overwhelmed, inexperienced, or unorganized manager rather than a plotting boss. Freezes in raises or promotions may be orders from the higher-ups and may be a matter of trouble finding the funds rather than undervaluing employees. While these situations are still not ideal, employees occasionally mistake human error for ill intent. When deciding how to deal with the situation, it is important to diagnose whether a bad boss’ unsavory behavior is a ploy to inspire a voluntary layoff or a case of off-judgment.
Effects of quiet firing
Here are some of the results of quiet firing.
1. Low employee morale
One of the most obvious effects of quiet firing is low morale. Naturally, the targeted employee will feel demotivated and dissatisfied. Coworkers may also suffer in the crosshairs. It is hard to maintain a positive working culture while mistreating certain employees, no matter how subtle the mistreatment may be.
Here are ways to raise employee morale.
2. Poor teamwork
It is hard to have good teamwork when putting a team member on the outs. Coworkers may feel resentment that the employee in question is not “pulling their weight,” and team conflict may arise. By pigeon-holing certain team members, quiet firers may deprive the rest of the team of the role that person should be playing and the potential contributions they could make to the group. At minimum, team dynamics will be off. Modern work revolves around team cooperation, and singling out certain team members makes true collaboration impossible.
Learn about ways to improve team cooperation.
3. Collateral turnover
Quiet firers may target individuals, however, there is no guarantee that the dissatisfaction will not spread. Often in organizations, employee resignations can trigger a domino effect that results in multiple departures. Workers may observe management’s behavior and worry that they might be next. Surrounding employees may just be unhappy with the treatment of their teammates. In pushing out a less-favored employee, quiet firers risk alienating and losing star employees too.
4. Burning bridges
Contrary to popular belief, you can end a worker’s employment on good terms. For example, you and the employee can come to a mutual understanding that the company may not be the best fit and part with no bad feelings. While this outcome is not assured, quiet firing is almost always guaranteed to leave a bad taste. Making a clean break is usually preferable to drawing out the process and slowly torturing the employee, even if the employee is more reactive to an immediate confrontation. Even if you pretend you are doing nothing wrong, if the employee is dissatisfied enough to leave, they will not have favorable views of the company. These impressions can prevent the individual from returning to the organization in a role they may be more suited for or from recommending the company to other candidates.
5. Wasted potential
One of the most tragic results of quiet firing is wasted potential. You deprive the chosen employee of the ability to flourish within the organization. Even if the team member eventually leaves, quiet firers rob that individual of time that could otherwise be spent learning and improving. Often, these employees are not hopeless and simply require a different kind of intervention and support. Many go on to do well at other companies. By giving up on these employees too early, you stifle the employee and throw away any chance at them contributing positively to the organization. Beyond the harm to the target, you also rob other employees of the skills and contributions that individual may have been able to develop and bring to the team. You also squander a possible company resource by failing to reimagine the ways the employee in question may become an asset to the company.
Also, the time and energy you spend convincing the employee to quit could be put to better use by finding a better fit. Using these employees as placeholders does no favors to the employee nor the company.
6. Recruiting and retainment struggles
When word gets out that you treat employees this way, you may have trouble retaining and recruiting employees. You may believe that you are protecting your employer brand by tricking employees into quitting, yet your actions can still harm your reputation as a great place to work. Few professionals want to work with an organization that is not honest and transparent and refuses to be upfront about performance or the possibility for growth.
Ways to prevent quiet firing
Here are steps you can take as an employer to prevent quiet firing within your organization.
1. Normalize honest discussions
Communication takes the “quiet” out of quiet firing. Quiet firers rarely prevail in environments where honest discussions happen regularly and openly. In these workplaces, avoidance sticks out like a sore thumb, and workers will call each other out for not being forthcoming. You can create such an environment by modeling open communication, expressing accountability as a leader, fostering regular group and 1:1 discussions, and training employees in communication and conflict resolution. It is almost always better to talk it out vs. drag it out. An organization that values honest communication does not tolerate quiet firing.
Check out these books on communication.
2. Assess your managers
Quiet firers succeed when nobody questions or draws attention to the behavior. While you do not want to micromanage or constantly second guess your managers, there should be some oversight. You should regularly discuss employee performance with supervisors. Rather than automatically accept employees being labeled as underperformers, suggest alternative approaches and intervention plans. Be sure to check in with employees and make appearances within the department to confirm that your leaders treat employees fairly and to company standards.
3. Build rapport with employees
Victims of quiet firing often leave organizations because their bosses have treated them unfairly, and they feel they have no one else to turn to. It is important for employees to have relationships with organizational authority figures beyond their immediate bosses. Employees that know and trust you as a higher leader will feel more comfortable raising red flags and bringing issues like quiet firing to your attention. Building a rapport with all employees sets the stage for these team members to come to you when they have nowhere else to turn. Ways to develop this rapport include introducing yourself to new hires, attending company functions, and taking time to learn and remember personal details about your staff.
4. Train leaders
One of the main reasons quiet firing occurs is because leaders lack the confidence and ability to have tough conversations with employees. Coaching leaders on how to confront these kinds of issues reduces the chance that managers will take the passive-aggressive route and rely on quiet firing. Also, inefficient management tactics might lead bosses to write employees off as lost causes when these teammates just need a different approach. Proving proper leadership training can help your leaders be more effective people managers that get the most from employees.
5. Perform exit interviews
Exit interviews can be a valuable tool for finding out why you are losing employees. Rather than take resignations at face value and assume you know why an employee is moving on, sit down with the departing team member and have an intentional conversation. Even if the worker is not comfortable enough to outright state their reasons for departure, you can pick up hints of the real reasons. By having and documenting these interviews, you can pick up on the signs of quiet firing and take corrective measures.
6. Enable lateral transfers
The saying goes, “employees don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.” The employee may simply be in the wrong job or paired with the wrong manager. Rather than losing the employee forever, you can enable lateral transfers. That individual may flourish in a different department under a new supervisor. Moving to another company area gives the employee options beyond leaving the organization and takes some of the stress out of the experience. Lateral transfers also give quiet firers another option beyond giving teammates the freeze. Ways to promote this method include announcing and encouraging employees to apply to internal job postings and offering cross-training and job-shadowing opportunities.
7. Empower whistleblowers
Practitioners of quiet firing are experts at hiding their bad behavior and making the employee seem like the problem. Suffers of the practice often do not know who to tell or doubt that anyone would believe them. The treatment might not be blatant enough for other employees or leaders to pick up on. Victims often feel helpless and assume that leaving is the only option. You can empower targets and bystanders to call out this behavior by educating staff on quiet firing and creating an anonymous reporting method, for example.
In past weeks, many articles have appeared stating, “after quiet quitting, here comes quiet firing.” However, while the names are new, these practices have existed in some form for decades. This tactic avoids outright conflict and uses manipulation to persuade employees to resign. While this technique may sidestep blowups and blame, it is a problematic way of parting ways with employees. This practice can damage an employer’s reputation, cause employees distress, and squander potential. To create a positive and productive workplace, it is important to educate yourself and your employees about quiet firing and take measures to avoid the practice.