Quiet quitting isn’t the only “quiet” trend; quiet firing is happening, too, and it’s been going on for a long time. Instead of properly managing an employee, bosses shirk their duties and hope they’ll quit. And in some cases, they may be pushing their employees out the door without realizing it.
“Quiet firing is a rebranding of a concept that’s been around for a while,” says Annie Rosencrans, director of people and culture at HiBob, a people management platform. “It’s when managers have lost faith in the ability of their team members to do their jobs. Rather than giving them direct feedback or opportunities to develop new skills, they hope the person will self-select out.”
Quiet firing can also describe managers who treat employees badly to the point that they quit, adds Dr. Ella F. Washington, organizational psychologist and founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a DEI strategy consulting firm. “It’s employers disenfranchising employee in implicit ways,” she says.
Why do managers quietly fire?
Quiet firing is a symptom of weak leadership. “Managers are often not equipped to have tough conversations on performance, feedback, and expectations,” says Washington. “If an employee is not performing at the level expected, instead of coaching them, giving them feedback, and telling them the consequences of continued poor performance, managers ice them out.”
For example, Washington says managers may not give the employee assignments that they would enjoy, or they may stop investing in their continued development. “That’s easier than having those candid conversations that help employees course correct when there’s a performance problem,” she says.
It’s also possible that a manager doesn’t realize they’re quiet firing. “If a manager has a lot of direct reports and is pulled in a lot of directions, they may be focusing their efforts on the people that they see contributing more or having more value,” says Rosencrans. “They may be inadvertently neglecting some team members, not giving them the attention they need to continue growing.”
While it may be unconscious, Washington says it’s not happening by accident. “I don’t think most people are malicious, saying, ‘I’m going to leave this person out of this meeting, because I don’t like them,’” she says. “But I think they do start to think, ‘These are the team members that I want to work with.’ Ultimately, it’s still shying away from that tough conversation.”
And quiet firing can be more prevalent in a remote or hybrid environment. “Disengaging from your direct report is easier when you don’t run into each other in the office,” says Rosecrans. “You have to be more intentional about communication when you’re in a remote environment.”
What employees can do
While managers should be addressing performance issues head on, not all have the self-awareness or desire to improve their management skills. In that case, an employee can take steps to mend the situation if they feel they’re being quietly fired, says Rosencrans.
“They’re probably going to be able to read the signs before anyone else,” she says. “They may see that they’re being passed over for promotions or they’re not getting salary increases from year to year. Or they’re just not hearing any feedback from their manager.”
Be proactive and manage up. Book time on the boss’s calendar and explicitly ask for feedback. Conversations around transparency goes both ways, says Washington, who suggests asking questions like, “How am I doing on this project?” and, “Is there anything I could have done better?”
“Also, be vocal about your goals and aspirations,” says Washington. “Tell your manager, ‘I’d really like to get promoted in the next year. What are some ways that I can ensure to do that? What are some gaps in my performance that I can close to reach my goals?’ Make it very clear that you’re invested in the organization and your growth within it.”
If you aren’t getting anywhere, Washington recommends reaching out to other managers or HR. “Don’t tell on your manager, but make sure you are connecting with multiple members of your team throughout your week,” she says.
What companies can do
HR leaders should also be stepping in to prevent quiet firing from happening in their companies, says Rosencrans. “We have regular check ins with managers, where I listen to them about what’s going on in their teams and who are the team members who are struggling,” she says. “I will proactively ask the managers, ‘What are you doing about it? How are you managing that person’s performance?’ If they suggest that they’re sort of disengaging, then I put the pressure on them to take action and not just let the person fade out in the background.”
It’s important for companies to provide feedback training as part of their management development program, says Rosencrans. “It’s one of the most difficult things for most people,” she says. “If you feel there are gaps in an employee’s performance, you need effective strategies for continuous feedback, as opposed to the once-a-year performance review where an employee learns all the things they’ve been doing wrong.”
Quiet firing can also have lasting consequences on future hiring, says Rosencrans. “Sometimes the desired effect is having the person leave, but it’s under really negative circumstances where they were ignored,” she says. “That is not good for your employer brand. Even when people leave, you want them to leave on good terms. And that’s probably not going to happen if they leave due to quiet firing.”
At their core, quiet firing and quiet quitting are about assumptions, says Washington. “Managers assume team members know they’re not doing the job, but that’s not always the case,” she says. “And employees assume their manager would let them know when they’re unhappy. All of this is a lack of transparency in those difficult conversations. Avoiding assumptions and being explicit in conversations is really important.”