I recently wrote about the perils of quiet firing and how it can damage your brand. Leadership teams should make it a priority to uncover it within their organisations and resolve this behaviour because it is not only terrible for the employee, it can be quite impactful on the organisational reputation as well. But quiet firing isn’t the only passive-aggressive behaviour to be aware of at the workplace. You should watch out for the close cousin of quiet firing: quiet quitting. These are really two manifestations of the same problem – a corporate culture that is rife with passive-aggressive behavior.
Quiet firing, meet quiet quitting: the other passive-aggressive trend in the workplace.
What does quiet quitting look like? This Forbes article explained that ‘quiet firing happens when an employer may or may not have a specific reason to exit an employee from the business and takes actions that make that person’s job unpleasant or unrewarding in order to get an employee to leave on his or her own terms’. Quiet quitting, on the other hand, is when an employee begins to do the bare minimum required to fulfill their duties. It doesn’t mean they are sabotaging or causing problems. But they no longer ‘go the extra mile.’ Those people give more of their time and energy to improve the product or the culture or both. The person who organized the softball team or was always willing to switch shifts begins to put their head down and leave right on time. They may be executing fine, but they aren’t taking on the countless initiatives that engaged and motivated workers to contribute to an organization. When people don’t feel they are getting an equal return from the company, that extra effort is withdrawn.
Why does quiet quitting happen? Often quiet quitting comes from feeling one is not getting as much back as they are putting in, a dynamic known as equity theory. Equity theory at the workplace is a fairly simple concept. The complexity is twofold: one, a sense of equity is a subjective and sometimes subconscious calculation; and two, what a person perceives they are contributing or receiving can change, thus altering their sense of equity. In some ways, the rise in quiet quitting should not come as a surprise to us. We have known about equity theory since the 1960s. The issue right now is that it’s happening at such a high rate in places like Western Europe and North America. (It actually was seen at a high rate towards the end of the Soviet Union where workers felt they got little for their efforts. It was often articulated as ‘they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’.) Instead of quitting outright, employees simply dial down to reset their sense of equity. If you put less in, you won’t feel badly that you’re not getting as much out.
Times change. Companies have to keep up. Quiet quitting doesn’t mean the organisation has done something wrong. People might begin quiet quitting because what they need from work has changed, and the workplace can’t or won’t offer it. Because a sense of equity is defined by a personal perspective, it is impossible to objectively measure if what you are giving is on par with what you are getting. Also, what people expect from their employers is influenced by what our professional peers are able to get from theirs. The most recent example of this is the surge in work from home arrangements. Before 2020, most workers would not have considered coming into an office to be an unreasonable requirement. But the more we see others able to work from home, the more it might seem like a bigger ask to come to the workplace every day. It was a slow shift to remote working in 2019, and then it was happening all at once and everywhere. That is a lot for employers to digest and adjust to. But they must. They don’t have to accept it wholesale, but they must recongise that expectations have changed. If an employee now feels like more is asked of them by working on site, they will need something additional in return to maintain equity.
The passive-aggressive workplace goes next level: firing by text, over Slack or by stealth.
The recent wave of firing en masse that has been widely reported is just as troubling as quiet firing and quiet quitting. Some employees received the news they had been terminated via an email in the middle of the night or via Slack. There are even stories of people only discovering they had lost their jobs when their key card wouldn’t work or they no longer could log into the company email. It all points to the same problem: managers are unwilling to have tough conversations, even it if it’s the final one. This passive-aggressive behaviour from managers is unprofessional, is unkind and it may come back to bite you. The economy will change, as it always does. And when employers have to court talent, the stories of how they treated people will likely resurface. Most people accept that losing your job is almost an inevitability at some point in your career. But how they lose it can be the difference between a quiet disappointment or an outraged tweet. Be gracious and sensitive right to the end.
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.