Most articles verse on quiet quitting. Contrary to what one might think, the definition of “quiet quitting” is not “doing the bare minimum so as to get fired” but actually “not taking on much more work than you have to — especially without extra pay.” When we shift from one definition to the other, the conversation changes from talking about worker responsibility to entrepreneurial duties and worker rights.
Quiet Quitting or Quiet Firing? A Struggle Toward Definitions
An essential idea is the “work to rule” philosophy, which actually stems from the 1938 French train worker unions and strikes. According to Jonathan Lord, “[w]orking to rule isn’t just about minimizing workload, it can be used to frustrate the operations as well.” It’s against the idea, in other words, that — almost under a stoic facade — the harder one works, the faster one stays on top of the work.
While it’s true that quiet quitting can cause quiet firing, the relation is not necessarily direct. In the case of quiet firing, mistreatment and even a cold shoulder, or not paying attention to employees’ needs, could be a direct invitation to quit. But, more often than not, workers do want to keep their jobs — they’re just not being supported well enough.
I believe it’s dangerous, even, to think of quiet firing as a trend. In fact, in 2001, an article on the subject called, “The Right Way to Get Fired” was published in Harvard Business Review. (Is there even a wrong way to get fired?) If quiet firing is a trend, there are two-way consequences. It can either grow or fall and is thought of as a temporary, historical phenomenon.Business leaders need to think of this, instead, as a permanent problem — but, could there also be a permanent solution to match?
The Issue With Quiet Firing
The U.S.-based National Law Review states that “[m]any teams are stretched thin given labor market constraints, and remaining workers are taking on wider responsibilities. Employers should evaluate what is working, and what is not, and how they can offer support to help combat worker fatigue.”
Market constraints, time constraints, pay constraints — is there really no room for redirection, no course of action? If you think quiet firing is an employee’s fault, there’s a problem. If, say, employees were to be solely responsible for getting fired, then we’re ignoring the evidence. Out of 1,000 U.S. citizens from a sample, most workers think burnout is “somewhat common” or “very common.” In the first question posed to employees, most believe they should “go above and beyond at work” (23 percent), only coming into second place after “workers should set boundaries” (32 percent).
Quietly firing someone because they set boundaries at work should be more frowned upon than it is: Doing nothing to fire someone clearly and respectfully is, actually, a very concrete course of action and an active choice toward ways of doing business.
There is a difference between “perks at work” and providing “psychological safety,” as the Washington Post points out. Living in fear at work is hard enough and cannot be compensated by small incremental rewards (e.g., “Congratulations! You’ve earned unpaid time off”). Quiet firing causes psychological harm on top of the psychological harm of actual burnout.
When Quiet Quitting Gets Loud Enough
In a recent article titled “Employee Voice and Silence,” researcher Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison (NYU) suggests a strong and useful metaphor for quiet firing: voicing and voice, silence and silencing. As Wolfe Morrison describes it: “[i]t is a form of extra-role upward communication behavior that, although constructive in intent, challenges and seeks to alter the status quo.”
What makes employees go quiet? What happens when communication’s not happening? A “no news is good news” approach could never force business owners and leaders into being suspicious of employee silence. The answer to why this happens is far from simple. A cognitive approach to emotions and non-conscious processes (as we’ve said) can help us understand these phenomena a bit better. CEOs and managers have the choice to remain silent. They likely aren’t paying attention to merits, focusing on favoritism instead.
Quiet firing, thus, is akin to not seeing the forest (company behavior) for the singular tree (firing so-and-so for what they did wrong or haven’t done at all). Quiet quitting is, ironically, very loud, because mistreatment is like shouting, especially when it takes over company culture.
Entrepreneur’s Responsibility: A Course of Action for Entrepreneurs
Eg Workforce Solutions says the following on quiet quitting: “First, re-energize your employees about their work and career. Second, help them think about their career goals and how you can work together to achieve them so they can stay at the company. Lastly, identify any roadblocks between them and their goals so that you can address them before they become frustrated enough to leave.”
This could perfectly apply to quiet firing — to keep it from happening altogether — but is it enough?
From my perspective, the short answer is no. Again, we return to the line of thinking, outlined in the HBR article: “If you take care of the company, the company will take care of you.” The problem with this line of thinking is it denies there are power relations, asymmetries and stakes at play here. It presupposes workers don’t rely on their managers or superiors more than they do, on them. What can we do to prevent this sort of business illiteracy?
We need to do more but act patiently. We could remember quiet firing should not be common practice, obviously, but also remember that it (probably) doesn’t comply with labor laws — much less, worker rights. When it comes to employment laws, quiet firing is on a gray terrain. It’s not a crime to fire someone, but it is illegal to fire someone unjustly. We could make the case that transparency leads to justice. True acceptance of basic work dynamics — be it via quitting, hiring, firing and everything in between — is a must. Business illiteracy is not viable at all.