What is quiet firing?
The term quiet firing has recently entered the corporate vocabulary, and social media is bursting with tweets and posts on the subject. Quiet firing, formally known as constructive dismissal, takes place when an employer creates an undesirable or even hostile work environment with the intention of making an employee leave the company. Employers who quietly fire would rather have employees quit at their own discretion rather than pay severance or proceed with formal termination. Quiet firing has created an online buzz and seems to be on the professional’s radar more than ever before.
How common is quiet firing?
A poll on quiet firing organized by LinkedIn News received responses from 20,000 people. Thirty-five percent said they’ve personally experienced quiet firing and 48% said they’ve witnessed it in the workplace.
Bill Boorman is an advisor to tech companies and has spoken at global HR and Recruiting events. Boorman says, “Quiet firing is really common. Employees don’t know what to do after Covid and their bosses don’t know what to do either, so everyone is doing nothing.” During the pandemic, people were in survival mode. Some employees had to work from home for the first time, turned their bedrooms into offices, and quickly learned how to use Zoom. Within their organizations, many people experienced less professional communication, fewer opportunities, and fewer rewards, and this has resulted in a lack of motivation.
“After Covid, the way we work has changed,” Boorman says, “and we’re noticing that employees aren’t as focused on a company career anymore.” People are spotlighting their careers in a new way, their own way. Some are starting to replace company careers with gig work, freelancing, and full-time side hustles. In Boorman’s opinion, this is why quiet quitting and quiet firing are hot topics. Employees complete their 9-5 and don’t do a single ounce more than what they’re paid for and in turn, employers are withholding feedback, promotions, and other opportunities. Everyone is silently demanding change but these quiet actions are beginning to speak louder than words.
Why do employers quiet fire?
A resounding response to quiet quitting is quiet firing. When employees are unhappy and are underperforming at work, we need to take a good hard look at the entire company. Michael Sullivan says, “There are five dysfunctions in a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.” Sullivan is a CAPA Pro member at Patrick Lencioni’s Table Group and a Certified Facilitator of The Six Types of Working Genius with experience in empowering leaders to transform their organizations. According to Sullivan, when these five dysfunctions are present in a company, quiet quitting and quiet firing are rampant. We need to do a 180 and turn these dysfunctions into attributes of a healthy team.
Sullivan says, “Vulnerability and trust come from the top down. The more managers show vulnerability and honesty with their employees, the more vulnerable, trusting, and honest their employees will be.” Sullivan continues, “Conflict is honesty out loud,” and if handled correctly it will be healthy conflict. “Leaders must demand debate,” he says, “because if conflict is absent there’s silence, uncertainness, and a build-up of emotions.” If employers and employees trust one another and address conflict both assertively and cooperatively, then commitment, accountability, and results will follow.
When managers fail to cultivate trust, healthy conflict, accountability, etc. in their teams, they’re more likely to develop harmful behaviors such as quiet firing and more likely to have despondent employees who engage in behaviors like quiet quitting.
Psychological & organizational issues at play
Boorman says, “Employers don’t really know what to do and it’s becoming increasingly frustrating because neither employer nor employee is loyal.” The pandemic threw us into a crisis, but even after the worst of the pandemic subsided, the world’s normal chaos continued, only now people are drained and more sensitive to setbacks and challenges. Of course, when people are dispirited and unmotivated, it will affect their performance and approach to work.
Boorman adds that many managers don’t want to fire their employees given the current work situation. There’s a shortage of employees right now. Everyone is reassessing after the pandemic. It’s not about the money in most cases. “A major driver for employers not to fire is not having a replacement. They don’t want to keep the employee, but even more so, they don’t want to or simply can’t replace the employee.”
HR Consultant and OHS Specialist George Ziogas says, “If an employee is aware that they’re a target of quiet firing, then undoubtedly the employee is prone to an array of potential psychological injuries like anxiety, depression, etc.” One cannot be psychologically unaffected when experiencing a quiet firing. With mind games being played, egos being tossed around, and a partial or complete lack of communication between boss and employee, emotional wounds are abundant.
Does HR enable quiet firing?
Ziogas says, “Yes, I’ve seen HR Directors be specifically instructed to make the working life of a pre-selected employee difficult. CEOs or managers identify an employee whom they really have no concrete grounds for dismissing and they impose unrealistic work demands on the employee in question, which essentially is quiet firing in motion. HR can definitely end up enabling such unethical behavior due to self-interest, namely wanting to keep their jobs.”
Boorman believes HR departments want to help employees, not harm them. He admits, however, “The C-suite is ultimately directing HR. So yes, HR is enabling quiet firing, but not directing it.”
Quiet firing in real life
J.R. Heimbigner personally faced quiet firing from January to July of this year. His manager didn’t communicate that anything was wrong. “I didn’t realize it was happening until after things started to change,” Heimbigner says. “I have worked for this company for eight years and have never had any issues with management, so I’ve always assumed things were on the up and up.”
Heimbigner continues, “Looking back, I probably would have tried to be more proactive with what was going on when things felt off,” He was completely blindsided when he applied for a lateral job within the company that he was qualified for and didn’t get it. It was then he realized something wasn’t right.
As it turns out, Heimbigner’s former manager had been attempting to quiet fire him, but the manager himself left the company and Heimbigner received a new manager. The new one was better and didn’t want to get rid of him, so Heimbigner currently works at the same company in the same position. He would have liked to move up within the organization, but because the old manager wanted him gone, he lost his chance for advancement.
Heimbigner recommends, “Find support. Reach out to HR or if you have someone in leadership in your company that you are close with, check in with them. Get help to have a sit down with your boss or your boss’s boss.”
As far as legal action goes, Heimbigner says, “I would probably talk with HR before taking legal action. If there isn’t a response or the situation becomes dangerous or extremely unethical it might be worth taking legal action sooner. What I experienced was so subtle, I didn’t even know what was going on until I couldn’t get promotions or move within the company.”
Legal action against quiet firing
Most states in the US recognize constructive dismissal. Even though an employee voluntarily quits in a quiet firing or a constructive dismissal, when a claim is approved, the employee is considered as having no other reasonable solution other than resignation due to unbearable working conditions.
Read and understand your employment contract. This is vital before filing a constructive dismissal claim.
If you decide to pursue a constructive dismissal claim, you need to provide evidence of oppressive working conditions. This includes proving your work environment was so insufferable that you were forced to resign. You’ll also need to prove your employer intended to force your resignation or had knowledge of the intolerable working conditions.
Constructive dismissal cases are difficult to win because, in most circumstances, the law doesn’t require employers to treat their employers fairly or provide a peaceful environment at work. Employers violate the law if they act in a discriminatory manner or illegal manner, but if you don’t have sufficient proof that your employer is breaking the law or in breach of your employment contract, you probably don’t have a claim.
Best advice from HR pros if you’re being quiet fired
- “Look at your employment contract and legal position,” Boorman advises. Understand your contract and connect with a professional if you decide to take legal action.
- Have a conversation with your boss or manager. Be open, be real. Boorman says, “Give some hard examples, not just your feelings.” You need concrete evidence of the unfair treatment you’ve experienced in the workplace. Say what you need to say and be clear.
- “If the immediate manager/supervisor route doesn’t work then escalate the matter to HR,” Ziogas recommends. “Especially if you feel you have a fair and credible HR Department, then take the matter to HR.”
- “Approach it from a wellness position,” Boorman also counsels. You need to take care of yourself. An unhealthy work environment may not only cause you to worry and stress, but you might experience physical ailments as well.
The two quiets
“Spending time together as a team and understanding each employee’s background and working style is essential in warding off quiet quitting and quiet firing,” Sullivan says. He’s found managers play a vital role in keeping employees happy. If managers make communication happen and employees feel understood and accepted, quiet quitting and quiet firing will occur less often. Employees want to feel taken care of at work, especially after Covid. The pandemic caused major upheavals in our jobs and we’re still adjusting, so openness and communication are key for both employer and employee.
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