Top Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo
Barely a year after I wrote my very first article at a local media company, I was handed the reins to run the publication’s entire lifestyle section.
To put things into perspective, all of my colleagues at the same level had buckets more experience. I was the greenest—and youngest—but the role landed in my lap after my predecessor left the company.
Rather than hiring from outside the company, my bosses decided to look internally instead. My name was floated up.
Some would call this girlbossing a little too close to the sun. Gartner, one of the world’s top market research companies, calls it a different name: Quiet hiring.
Quiet hiring is the latest buzzword to enter the jobs and hiring realm, coined by the firm in its workplace predictions for 2023. Like quiet quitting, quiet firing, and career cushioning, it’s just an old phenomenon rebranded with a snazzy new name.
According to Gartner, quiet hiring refers to a company acquiring new capabilities without hiring new blood. Some see it as empowering their existing employees. Others don’t see it that way when they are forced to take on additional roles thanks to hiring freezes or layoffs.
Quiet hiring often involves taking on contract workers, handing employees new responsibilities, or transferring them to a different role altogether.
Shah Md., 34, the director of human resources at Big 3 Media, tells me that the practice has been going on long before the term was created. The HR practitioner of eight years explains that the trend is simply been exacerbated now by the looming recession. Getting employees to wear multiple hats is just one way that they might try to cut costs.
In my case, I assume that taking a chance on a young, eager employee worked out better for the company’s bottom line than hiring someone more experienced (read: expensive).
Ask What Your Company Can Do for You
If you’ve seen the 1001 articles on quiet firing out there, saddling an employee with extra work might seem like it should fall under that umbrella.
After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find an employee who would be happy to take on tasks outside of their job scope or work overtime. Sure, we all do it from time to time, but if it happens often enough, it can test the patience of the most dutiful employee.
Here’s where the difference lies: Employers who quiet hire aren’t trying to force their employees out.
In fact, Shah says that the exposure and experience employees can glean from quiet hiring can help give them an edge. A win-win scenario, theoretically.
I’ll be honest. I was initially apprehensive about accepting my new role. At that point, I was just a junior writer whose only concern was filing stories, and occasionally editing my colleagues’ work. As a lifestyle editor, I’d have to come up with content strategies, manage a team of writers, and answer for the overall performance of the content section. In a way, I was at the base camp of Mount Everest, tasked to climb to the peak without any pitstops.
Eventually, it was the taboo around saying no to opportunities that propelled me to take the role. Richard Branson once said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes—then learn how to do it later!”
And if my bosses thought I was good enough, who was I to disagree?
That’s not to say it was a cakewalk. The new role came with several non-financial ‘bonuses’. This includes stress-induced acne breakouts and midday crying jags.
I found myself getting anxious before meetings and struggling to be a firm manager to junior writers who were my age, or even older. It was as if any small misstep would reveal to all my colleagues my deep insecurity—that I wasn’t worthy of the role.
In the end, though, I think sucking it up and getting the job done worked out for the better. I paid my dues and emerged from the trial by fire with more managerial skills and a promotion to boot. The acne, though, stayed.
Shah tells me, “If it is something that is still palatable and you still have bandwidth, I think it’s also good to view [quiet hiring] as something positive where you can develop yourself.”
In other words, it all boils down to HR professionals’ favourite buzzword—upskilling. In what is shaping up to be a bearish job market, young jobseekers shouldn’t be picky. Rather, they should focus on learning new skills, other HR experts also told TODAY in a recent report.
Who knows? If I’d stuck to my comfort zone instead of taking the leap, I might not have landed this job here at RICE.
Exploiting an Already Exhausted Workforce
Taking on only as much as you can handle in order to beef up your portfolio, as Shah mentioned, is the ideal situation. But employees here may not really have a choice when it comes to their workloads.
Some of us even have one foot out the door. Nearly two-thirds of workers are considering switching jobs this year, mostly for higher pay.
With most of us already spread thin, quiet hiring can be more of a curse than an opportunity.
Michael (not his real name), who has been working in the creative industry for six years, paints a less-than-pretty picture of his quiet hiring experience.
On top of his usual video content creation, copywriting, and copyediting tasks, Michael had agreed to take the job of launching a new sub-brand for the company. The project fell on his shoulders as he’d previously expressed his eagerness to spearhead it and build up his portfolio.
He quickly realised it was more than he’d bargained for.
“As I was the only person on the team for that project, it was very disruptive to my schedule and my workload, which consisted of daily work and tasks on a deadline. I actually had a sizeable backlog,” says Michael, who is in his early 30s.
“And fingers were certainly pointed when it was perceived that the boss had an issue with the results of the project,” says Michael.
Maybelle, a 31-year-old nurse, tells me that she, too, has trouble getting her bosses to listen to her.
At the private hospital where she’s been working for the past six years, quiet hiring is necessitated due to the global nursing crunch. Unable to get enough full-time nurses onboard, the hospital has turned to locum—or temporary—nurses.
Even then, the hospital is still shorthanded, Maybelle says. When the going gets tough, there’s no option but for her and her colleagues to pick up the slack. That means that as more patients are warded, each nurse takes on more work.
During the day, Maybelle says she currently cares for six to seven patients at a time. When night falls, she’s responsible for around 12 patients. Her bosses think this is manageable, says Maybelle. But even handling a couple of difficult patients can be “pretty draining”.
“The issue lies in the management level—when they expect the same treatment and level of care when the workload and the nurse-to-patient ratio gets heavy,” she explains.
Attempting to give feedback to their bosses made no difference for Maybelle and her overworked colleagues. The conclusion remains the same. Hiring more full-timers isn’t an option due to the nurse shortage. Unsurprisingly, she’s been told: “Not happy, then resign”.
Nurses have also been penalised for calling in sick, she reveals. In such a toxic environment, it’s no surprise that employees and their welfare take a backseat. Quiet hiring looks more like exploitation than opportunity.
Taking the ‘Quiet’ Out of Quiet Hiring
It’s a dangerous game, this quiet hiring. If employers play their cards wrong, they could very well end up with more quiet quitting employees than they’d like.
Don’t get me wrong. There are clear positives that explain why companies would want to quiet hire, according to Shah.
“Instead of looking outside to hire, why not focus on the inside, when you can create opportunities for your existing staff to rise up?”
Not only is hiring someone externally likely going to cost a company more, but a new hire also isn’t always better than an existing employee with tenure. At the end of the day, quiet hiring can be beneficial for an organisation’s succession planning, says Shah, as it ensures that existing staff move up the ranks.
Michael’s view on his company’s rationale for quiet hiring is similar albeit less charitable.
The company did intend to provide him with opportunities to expand his skill set and push his limits, he says. But they seemed reluctant to hire new blood even when it would have helped the project.
“Despite the assurances, though, it did come across like money was a consideration,” says Michael.
“The company seemed to prefer keeping a lean team for the project and relied on internal parties as much as possible despite the obvious lack of expertise.”
As Michael’s and Maybelle’s stories have shown, a lack of support and communication can demoralise and discourage employees. After all, why would any worker go above and beyond for a boss who won’t do the same?
To combat this, Shah suggests it may be time to eliminate the “quiet” from quiet hiring, quiet firing, and quiet quitting. In essence, employers and employees should be transparent with each other, he says.
“And I think most of the time, the lapses here, it’s due to the fact that employees are afraid to ask employers [questions].”
To ensure that quiet hiring is beneficial for both parties, there should be clear discussions on proper compensation and tangible performance indicators. There should also be a fixed timeline for employers to evaluate the employee’s performance in their new projects or roles, Shah adds.
I wish I’d known this earlier. For the first few months in my new role, I’d naively kept my head down and focused on adjusting to the job, not knowing how to broach the topic of a pay raise or an official promotion.
As a young media professional whose only frame of reference for the media industry was The Devil Wears Prada, I assumed that I had to pay my dues and prove myself before making any demands. Anne Hathaway’s Andy had to survive Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly before landing her dream job.
The pay raise and promotion eventually came. But in hindsight, being more assertive could have sped up the process.
What’s in a Name?
As Shah says, the rise of HR buzzwords can ostensibly be linked to market conditions such as mass job movements brought about by the pandemic and an unstable economy.
But this isn’t a chicken-and-egg situation. Even before quiet hiring entered the HR industry’s lexicon, it was referred to as upskilling. And for many employees, it was regarded as ‘all in a day’s work’—something they were supposed to accept without batting an eyelid.
While the flood of HR buzzwords has some rolling their eyes and inspired satirical takes, there is some value in giving these everyday workplace occurrences a label.
Psychology Today says that naming something makes it real, and makes it easier for people to discuss it.
When I was faced with my quiet hiring situation a couple of years ago, I was clueless about navigating it, unaware that it was a phenomenon that many others were dealing with across different industries.
Giving the phenomenon a name allows us to start the conversation: Is it a bane or a boon? What can employees do about it? And what should bosses do?
It also gives employees some semblance of control. If anything, there’s comfort in the knowledge that there’s a term for the issues you’re dealing with at work and that a solution is within reach.
Is Quiet Hiring Unavoidable?
If you’re among the 16 percent who are quiet quitting at work, quiet hiring may seem like an absolute nightmare. Who wants more work when you’re already unmotivated, right?
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that we’re all so damn competitive. Even if you don’t buy into quiet hiring, there are always others who will ‘spoil market’ by happily taking on the extra work.
Not to mention a possible influx of top foreign talent on the horizon with the launch of the new Overseas Networks & Expertise Pass, which will make it easier for high achievers from around the world to work here in Singapore.
If Gartner’s report and the recent tech mass layoffs are any indication, it’s more crucial than ever for employees to acquire new skills.
In the end, quiet hiring turned out to be a boon for my career, and I’m eternally grateful to my ex-bosses for trusting a greenhorn with a senior role.
And if you’ve found this article because you’re in a similar position, trust me on this: Advocate for yourself. Life isn’t The Devil Wears Prada, and your boss isn’t Miranda Priestly.
Opportunities will still be available even if you speak up (and if your boss is reasonable). But if repeated attempts to engage with your bosses aren’t working, it might just be time to rage apply to some new jobs.