Top image: Tey Liang Jin/RICE file photo
Packaged as a subtle strategy to dismiss an employee, quiet firing is a newly coined phrase for a tactic that has, in fact, been around since the dawn of office politics.
But while quiet quitting is perceived as drawing work boundaries in which an employee honours only what they’re paid to do (acting your wage), quiet firing is often seen as insidious, deceitful, and unjust.
And, like all current workplace philosophies, there are two extremes to quiet firing.
One sees a manager blatantly snub an employee—keeping them out of meetings, not following up on requests, and voiding them of career progression of any sort.
The other manifests as a more loaded expectation placed on an employee to take on multiple projects, work overtime constantly, and not get leave requests approved.
Firing is Not So Simple Math
Of course, a manager can, at their discretion, fire an underperforming employee, but it can be a grey area when you need valid and legal reasons for letting someone go.
That’s where quiet firing comes in; an under-the-radar method that pushes an employee, sometimes without good reasons, to quit on their own term and their own time.
For Sulaiman, a professional in the media industry in his late 30s, quiet firing is “when our boss stops caring enough about your work progress.”
“But I know some people define it as making your working conditions so horrible to the point that you will quit.”
He jumps to quiet firing’s defence, explaining that quiet firing doesn’t always warrant a warped view offered by angry employees. Sometimes, he believes quiet firing can be the proper response to an employee stagnating in their role, especially after he’s done all he can to motivate them.
“As long as I can justify that I have tried to help you, if my own boss asks why is this person under my charge not performing, then I can say I’ve tried to do this or help with that, but he doesn’t want to do anything about it.”
I followed up on his response, “Was there an element of guilt when you decided, ‘You know what? This is what I’m going to do. I am going to quiet fire'”.
Sulaiman shoots back an instant “No.”
Quiet Firing Isn’t Black Or White
A quick search for the term ‘quiet firing’ on Twitter brings up varying definitions. Many are by scorned employees, with one, in particular, doing its rounds on LinkedIn.
Bonnie Dilber, a Recruiting Manager for Zapier in Seattle, posted three weeks ago that quiet quitting is a situation where: “You don’t receive feedback or praise. You get raises of 3% or less while others are getting much more.
“Your 1:1s are frequently cancelled or shuffled around,” she added. “You don’t get invited to work on cool projects or stretch opportunities. You’re not kept up-to-date on relevant or critical information to your work. Your manager never talks to you about your career trajectory.”
Her theory garnered over 2,000 shares, more than 1,200 comments, and a handsome 37,300 enthused people liking the post.
Still, there were a few comments that challenged her positioning.
One stated, “Unpopular opinion: It’s not always a bad manager; bad employees exist. Yes, there are better ways to go about it than this, but there are two sides to every coin.”
Another response elaborated on why it’s clearly a corporate chess move in navigating legalities.
“Isn’t the whole point that they do this to protect themselves legally? They want to fire, but it’s always been my understanding that they would either have to offer severance or pay out unemployment[…] and, in some cases, even potentially open themselves to lawsuits. So they slowly turn up the heat until the frog realises they’re in hot water and jumps out.
Until more companies commit to a company culture that owns their hiring decisions and recognises the need to do the work to develop employees rather than expecting them to be immediately perfect, I don’t see this changing.”
There’s a common understanding that quiet firing involves setting up an environment that works against an employee, making it near-impossible for the employee to thrive and excel in their role, let alone be seen as a productive team member.
Darryl, 39, an account manager in a tech company, shares similar sentiments.
“My understanding of the term is that your manager or supervisor subtly makes things difficult for you, pushing you to the point where you decide you’ve had enough and want to leave.”
Still, there are always two sides to a story, which is undoubtedly true with quiet firing. While it’s commonly viewed as rooted in the executionary steps taken by the manager, its reasoning is seldom guided by what may have led to this reaction.
Taking a cue from Sulaiman’s interpretation of the term, if an employee’s efforts to progress, take the initiative, and contribute to the team are inadequate, quiet quitting might be a valid course of action.
The Mechanics of Quiet Firing
From his experience with quiet firing, Sulaiman made efforts to communicate with his team member, a content creator, how they could bolster their visibility and demonstrate eagerness in their work.
His efforts, however, fell on deaf ears as the employee resisted with sustained and persistent stubbornness. His employee, Sulaiman elaborated, didn’t think his request for timely work submissions was important. There was no urgency to the matter and many excuses about why he couldn’t get it done.
Even then, it wasn’t immediately apparent to Sulaiman that how he responded was essentially quiet firing.
“At that time when I did it, I didn’t realise what I was doing was quiet firing. I consciously decided that I was not going to help this person become better. And after a while, it’s not just to become better, but to maintain the minimum (performance).”
“With this employee, I tried, but it just didn’t work out.”
Firing the employee could’ve been the easiest and quickest solution to Sulaiman’s issue, but he kept the employee on as they were still producing work—albeit not as much as they should have or what Sulaiman wanted.
And when reviewing the team’s overall performance, the employee was still a contributive team member, overlooking Sulaiman’s decision to axe him from his role.
The Toll of Being Quiet Fired
Making cutthroat decisions as a manager is never easy and even more difficult to empathise with when they can be seen as an imperious figure deciding if someone gets to keep their job.
It is, however, more natural to extend empathy to employees who never see, let alone expect, quiet firing aimed at them.
Most articles or accounts I’ve heard pertaining to quiet firing revolve around how this intentionally inconspicuous act builds up. That is, until the employee in question puts the pieces together.
Kelly, 35, who works in the real estate industry, was an unfortunate target of quiet firing. Her experience involved being overworked by her then-manager, who clearly favoured her colleague working in a similar role.
“There was another executive and me, but I was assigned more work than they were. At the end of the year, my review was average, while they received a glowing review. It was very mentally exhausting because you don’t get recognition, sacrifice your social life, and are still stuck in this position.”
And while quiet firing may not always be evident to the person instantly—as its name suggests—there are occasions where the process can be kickstarted briskly and without reason.
This was exactly what Darryl observed in his company when a new department head joined the team.
Darryl recalls his colleague of three years who had a clean and excellent work record but was inexplicably put on ‘probation’ when a new manager of only three weeks came on board.
The plan involved hitting specific and often times difficults KPIs and benchmarks that must be met within a fixed timeline. Although the revised targets proved to be a challenge to hit, the black mark on her record led her to quit within a month.
It’s a unique situation where quiet firing was anything but hushed but still carries traits of unjustified work expectations, leading to an overwhelming urge to quit.
Is It the Manager’s Responsibility?
One perspective commonly held in online discussions is that a manager has default authority over an employee and, therefore, is responsible for team members’ performance—demonstrable awareness of their targets notwithstanding.
Sulaiman stands by the fact that employees are already privy to their targets. If the employee knows they’re underperforming and the manager quiet fires them, does the fault still lie with the manager?
He offers an unpopular viewpoint, but one reasoned by an employee’s core responsibility to have their work show their ‘worth’.
“In fact, I think the person I quiet fired deserved it,” asserts Sulaiman.
“I like to help all my employees be portrayed positively in the company—even when it’s not something I need to do. If your work speaks for itself, why would I need to make you look better?”
Darryl, however, feels very differently. He remains adamant that a manager is and will always be the sole bearer of responsibility when it comes to quiet firing.
“Quiet firing will always lie with the employer because the intention of asking his or her teammate to leave is already there. It’s just a matter of how they plot to make this person leave without making themself or the company look bad.”
In fact, I would venture that open and honest communication in the workplace would safely eliminate the need (or want) for quiet firing especially when both employee and manager verbally and explicitly state their boundaries and expectations early on.
It breeds a professional environment based on respect and transparency, minimising the use of passive-aggressive tactics such as quiet firing.
To Embrace Or To Resist?
In Sulaiman’s case, his employee showcased chronic stubbornness—with a refusal to want to be better. At times, it felt like he was pushing against a concrete wall.
He believes that a role at work comes with responsibilities and targets that have already been discussed and agreed upon since day one.
Any employee who doesn’t meet those requirements—or perhaps doesn’t show any signs of wanting to improve—should, naturally, expect some form of opposition.
It can be speculated, then, that quiet firing is worth serious consideration for managers, especially in cases similar to Sulaiman’s, where an employee dismisses a manager’s attempt at a solution that’ll fix their underperformance.
Still, from an employee’s perspective—a la Kelly’s experience—being quiet fired can wear you down and affect your life beyond your work desk. It brings constant anxiety about not being good enough and worries about when you’ll actually be fired.
Kelly knew she was targeted due to how her manager interacted with her. They behaved coldly towards her and maintained a distance compared to their warmer relationship with her other colleagues.
“I did speak up in a diplomatic manner. Her response was to simply justify her actions. That did trigger me to leave eventually, although not immediately.”
Workplace Bullying? Not Necessarily.
More than just a subtle method of getting someone to quit, in some quarters, quiet firing has been labelled as a form of workplace bullying. Still, whether it constitutes workplace bullying is debatable, as quiet firing is non-confrontational and doesn’t involve direct assault.
When asked for his opinion, Sulaiman falters—I don’t think he understands my point. He insists it’s not bullying: “It’s just real life—it really just is.”
His defence is that everyone on his team is given the same baseline opportunity for growth. But that opportunity lessens as employees slacken in their performance, and they’d have to work harder to get that promotion or recognition.
This potentially ignites the need for a manager to quiet fire an employee.
Darryl provides an understanding of quiet firing as, yes, non-confrontational, but just as much a form of workplace bullying as any. There is, after all, the psychological burden of being ostracised and being made to feel inferior to your fellow colleagues.
It can also result in a counter-productive method to motivate someone to pull up their socks—showing them signs of unfavourable bias and expecting them to prove everyone wrong.
There is common ground for both Sulaiman and Darren; quiet firing shouldn’t be seen as workplace bullying if the manager has had adequate conversations with the employee surrounding role performance.
It’s perfectly understandable how quiet firing can be classified as workplace bullying, given its either exclusionary nature or being assigned an unacceptable workload. Still, for me, it becomes bullying when a manager wields their authority at a whim, executing quiet firing due to bias or for personal gains.
Sulaiman ultimately posits that quiet firing is an unintentional evil; it’s a logical reaction to a situation. Moreover, if the employee absolutely refuses to improve their productivity, quiet firing is a deserving treatment, he concludes.