A few months ago, I had a client who was struggling to connect with her manager. This wasn’t a typical scenario of different work styles or communication challenges. This client was not having tough conversations with her manager; she was having no conversation at all. She began to notice on conference calls that she was often muted (by someone else) and unable to participate. She was being uninvited from departmental meetings that she had always attended in the past. And it didn’t take her long to discover who was behind it all – her manager. To add insult to injury, her manager pretended to wonder why she wasn’t participating and attending meetings. It sounds unbelievable but in fact, this kind of behaviour – commonly referred to as ‘quiet firing’ — is not as unusual as you might think. For CEOs, this sort of activity can happen beneath their radar, but if it goes unchecked, it can become a serious liability for the organisation, and damage the brand.
Quiet firing is becoming more common. And the leaders who do it could destroy the brand.
My client was understandably confused and frustrated by her manager’s behaviour. Whatever his reasoning, the message was clear: he wasn’t interested in engaging with her. She was inclined to simply quit: what was the point in trying to open a dialogue with someone who was openly (but quietly) sabotaging you? Unfortunately, that is often the point of quiet firing: a manager decides they don’t want to do the hard work of managing a team member who they believe is underperforming. They also don’t want to deal with the paperwork and headache (and severance costs) associated with terminating someone outright. So instead, they engage in passive aggressive tactics to effectively shut the employee out of day-to-day activities such as key meetings or important projects. As a result, the employee often gives up and quits.
Quiet is quite problematic. We can assume (or hope, at least) that most executive teams would be extremely displeased to learn these tactics are at hand in their organisation. But it isn’t the sort of activity that can be easily discovered. The employee might be reluctant to raise this formally by going to their manager’s boss or HR. They might also be unable to prove the intention of why it’s happening – the evil genius of quiet firing is that it mostly is comprised of non-action. Not inviting a team member to a meeting or not giving someone an opportunity on a high-profile project, isn’t proof that anything intentional is happening.
Why does it happen? The bigger question for leadership teams (once they uncover it) is how widespread it is, and what about the corporate culture has made it seem permissible. While it’s important to identify the individuals who are doing this and address it, the focus should be what mechanisms or processes are missing. Why aren’t managers having conversations with underperforming employees? Why weren’t areas for improvement recorded at a review or addressed at a one-on-one (note: you don’t have to wait for an annual performance review to give feedback)? And what does this say about your corporate culture that a manager (or several) felt this was ok? Don’t just investigate what is happening, but why.
Quiet firing isn’t just about the employee, but the company. As awful as quiet firing is for the employee, it’s just as bad for the organisation. The last thing you want is a quietly fired employee to quit . . . and go straight to a competitor. Or, to tweet out their experience on social media or tell the BBC. A company’s reputation on sites like GlassDoor could be easily tanked by this kind of treatment. To be fair, no one enjoys being told they are underperforming and certainly everyone dreads being sacked. But, to quietly fire also is simply insulting because it assumes that the employee has no interest in work to begin with. My client was highly aware of the opportunities she was being denied. And thanks to technology, it was all too easy for her to discover the culprit was her own boss. The experience of quiet firing can be much more infuriating and traumatic than a frank conversation about what is and isn’t working.
Quiet firing is on the rise. Don’t let it become a norm for your company.
It’s possible that quiet firing has been on the increase due to the rise in remote working. Managers who don’t wish to engage in difficult conversations (which is part of their job, by the way) may find it even easier to exclude team members when they don’t see them face-to-face. It is simply harder to get caught. Before it was easier to see when everyone was is in the conference room. Now some employees might not catch on to what is happening for weeks or even months. Whereas before one could pop into the office of their manager and try to casually check in, that sort of organic interaction is harder online. This is not to blame the new reality of remote work; it is simply an observation that it might facilitate this kind of bad behaviour. No matter – the fact that it’s easier, doesn’t make it any less bad than before. The message to CEOs is, communicate to leaders that quiet firing is unacceptable and toxic. And that is the message that should be loud and clear.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.