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October 6, 2022

Quiet Firing: The Dark Side of Quiet Quitting

Bruna Martinuzzi


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©© GettyImages/SrdjanPav

A passive-aggressive workplace trend, known as "quiet firing," is making the rounds on social media, but this concept is not new. Quiet firing has existed for decades, although it was previously called "constructive dismissal." It's a practice in which an employer purposefully ignores or mistreats employees to force them to resign rather than directly dismiss them.

Quiet firing is not the same as "quiet quitting," which has also sparked extensive online debate. In quiet quitting, employees are in control: they choose to do the bare minimum of their duties to get by, whereas, in quiet firing, managers are in control. Managers use quiet firing tactics to make employees feel they are not wanted, encouraging them to leave.

Motives for Quiet Firing

A recent LinkedIn News poll reveals that more than 80 percent of over 20,000 respondents have experienced or witnessed quiet firing. But why does this happen so often?

Managers use this passive-aggressive approach to avoid firing employees and incurring severance costs. Managers may also quietly fire to avoid having tough conversations about poor performance, or devising an improvement plan.

How Can You Spot Quiet Firing in Your Organization?

There are three main indicators that a manager is using quiet firing to encourage an employee to quit, especially if you observe a cluster or pattern to these behaviors.

1. Communication Channels Are Abruptly Closed.

  • You stop receiving feedback on your work from your manager.
  • Many of your emails go unanswered.
  • You find it's becoming challenging to schedule one-on-one meetings with your manager.
  • You have been excluded from key meetings.
  • Your input is not encouraged in the few meetings that you attend, and your contributions are glossed over.

2. Your Career Advancement Seems to Have Stalled.

  • You are repeatedly overlooked for a promotion.
  • Your salary has been frozen, or you received a much smaller raise than expected.
  • Your new projects are on hold, and you are repeatedly stuck doing the same old job.
  • You are consistently assigned routine, tedious work, and difficult or undesirable tasks.
  • No one speaks to you about your career progression.

3. You Are Socially Ostracized  

In addition to being professionally excluded, you will likely experience some form of social ostracization. While not everyone craves close friendships with their team, we all have a baseline need to belong to the group, to be acknowledged, and to feel welcome.

Being socially ostracized takes many subtle forms, from simple to extreme. For example:

  • You are no longer invited to impromptu team lunches or drinks after work with colleagues.
  • Fewer people drop by your desk or your inbox to chat or ask you to join them for coffee.
  • You find that you are often the one who starts conversations with your managers and colleagues instead of being approached.

That's what Amira, a recent client, said is happening to her. Amira is not her real name, but she has allowed me to share her story: "Something has changed in the office. In addition to being left out of important email chains, there is a sudden silence around me. I feel excluded and ignored."

She explained that she saw a definite change in her colleagues' body language. "Some of them avoided eye contact in the corridor or coffee room. I miss the cordialness – neither my boss nor my colleagues are unpleasant towards me," she explained, "but there is a shift in tone, which is cooler and sometimes more formal. I felt this from my boss a while ago, but I can't understand why the other employees are also acting that way toward me."

Why does this happen? While it's often not malicious, the manager's behavior toward the employee may unintentionally encourage other employees to distance themselves. Fearing for their jobs, employees may choose to avoid an employee who has fallen out favor with the boss.

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What to Do as a Victim of Quiet Firing

If you suspect that you're quietly being shown the door, the first logical step is to look within and assess your own behavior. Ask yourself, "Did I quietly quit?" "Have I stopped giving my job my best effort?"

An overlooked cause of quiet firing may be a manager's reaction to employees who no longer go the extra mile and stop giving their employer the best they can offer.

If, after an honest introspection, you conclude that your behavior is not the cause of the issue, here are a few strategies to consider:

Do Your Best Work

Before taking any drastic action, consider first what you can do to turn the situation around. Work hard, eliminate all distractions and stay focused and committed to delivering the best results for whatever you are working on. You may be able to redefine your manager's perception of you through consistent exemplary work. 

Talk to Your Manager

Inquire about what you can do to improve your situation. Request a one-on-one meeting with your manager. Bring examples of negative scenarios that you are experiencing and how they make you feel. This allows your manager to assess their own actions and find a solution that suits everyone.

Manage Your Emotions

What we see first and remember last is how a person reacts to unpleasant situations. Regardless of how difficult the circumstances are, try to keep a level head and be professional. Passive-aggressive reactions such as withdrawing from the team or even plotting your revenge will only make the situation worse. And if you do end up leaving the organization, don't burn your bridges. Organizations are constantly shifting and cutting ties could come back to haunt you later in your career.  

How to Manage a Passive-Aggressive Boss

Rather than simply ignoring you, a manager who quietly fires you may also resort to passive-aggressive behaviors to hasten your departure. One such is to set up an employee for failure. For example, they might withhold key information the employee needs to succeed.

How do you deal with a passive-aggressive manager? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Once you have identified that your manager uses these tactics, it helps to anticipate the behavior. This will keep you alert. For example, one of my coaching clients has a boss who withheld critical information she needed before a presentation to senior executives, although he claimed to have simply forgotten. In her case, suspecting her boss's agenda, she could have checked in with others in the group to ensure she had the correct information.
  • When you get instructions for a new project, make sure to put everything in writing. Confirm by email your managers' expectations and your responsibilities.
  • Take the high road. I always advise my clients to refrain from responding to passive-aggressive behavior in kind. For one thing, people who use these behaviors are very good at it. Also, the power imbalance is a no-win situation, especially with a well-connected manager. Stay calm and focused on your job until either the manager makes a move to outright fire you or you choose to move on with your life.

Network With Other Managers

Reach out to managers in other departments within your company. Increasing your visibility and strengthening your connections in the organization can help to bolster your reputation and may even open doors to transfer to a new department.

Is it Time to Quit?

If all else fails, you need to ask yourself if it's worth staying in a job where your manager makes your life miserable. Volunteering to resign will likely protect your wellbeing and reputation from further harm. By starting a discussion that your manager has been avoiding, you are in control and are taking a positive step to end an untenable situation for you and your manager.

That's the advice I gave to one of my clients whose manager had quietly fired him. Let's call him Jason.

We planned an honest, non-confrontational approach. Jason had a frank discussion with his boss and offered to resign if he received an appropriate severance and a letter of reference. The manager was so happy that he didn't have to face the ordeal of firing him that he gave him a generous severance.

Jason avoided the stress of being fired and any awkward conversations with subsequent employers explaining why he was fired.

Most importantly for Jason, the department organized the traditional go-away lunch, giving Jason a chance to part ways amicably rather than leave as a terminated employee. "I didn't want to be escorted to the elevator," he said to me, "without having an opportunity to say goodbye to everyone, as I had seen others leave who had been fired. I left with dignity with people dropping by my office after lunch to wish me well."

Are You Guilty of Quiet Firing?

Quiet firing may seem like the easy way out to some managers, particularly if your relationship with the employee is already strained. But it's always better to address issues directly and openly in a constructive conversation rather than quietly firing them.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Beware of Your Quiet Reputation

One of the downsides of practising "quiet firing" is damaging your reputation as a manager and, even worse, your company's reputation. Being branded as a quiet firer who doesn't dare to face issues openly can adversely impact your future hiring ability.

Quietly Fired Employees Could Come Back to Haunt You

A quietly fired employee may join a competitor or resurface as a client. This was the case for a company I consulted for. Let's call the employee Bruce. He was a junior lawyer in the company and because of his legal background, his manager worried about legal repercussions if he fired him. Instead, the manager made life so difficult that Bruce eventually resigned. But a few years later, he resurfaced as the senior lawyer for a major client of his previous employer. Relationships were strained, and the company eventually lost the client.

Practice Compassionate Leadership

Nothing demoralizes an employee more than being marginalized and made to feel excluded from the group.

Take the high road by adopting a compassionate leadership style. Quiet firing may save you severance pay or an awkward conversation, but it can also severely damage your employees' wellbeing and be a sign of weak leadership. Compassionate leadership means treating others with kindness and decency. A professional and amicable parting of ways is infinitely superior to the lasting damage of "quiet firing."


About the Author:

Bruna is an educator, author and speaker specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership, communication, and presentation skills training.

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2 comments on “Quiet Firing: The Dark Side of Quiet Quitting”

  1. I’m interested in your or anyone’s thoughts on a related phenomenon - I’m not sure if there’s any commonly used terminology for it but basically the “loud” version of this. Doing much of the same things, but making little or no attempt to do so subtly or hide intention - to make the employee so miserable that they quit rather than simply firing them. I’ve had this experience, and it was clearly in response to the fact that I initiated a grievance after being put on probation due to “excessive absences” that had in fact been documented as approved (in one case, the absence was due to being hospitalized following a car accident). When I stuck around to carry out the grievance process as far as company policy allowed (I intended to quit once it had concluded regardless of the result), they apparently got tired of waiting and fabricated an excuse to fire me. This is of course an extreme example but I’m sure there are cases all along the spectrum. In cases like mine where the employer is clearly engaging in misconduct, do you have any advice on how to handle the situation? Even if labor laws are being violated the legal process may just not seem to be worth the time and effort (and money, if things don’t end up going in your favor).

    1. Hi, Andrew, thank you for your feedback and the story you shared. I am sorry to hear what happened to you. I can imagine what a difficult situation and a negative outcome for you it must've been. I think it all depends on the situation and many factors that attribute to the "quiet firing". It's always better for everyone involved if our communication and collaboration are transparent and based on integrity and treating all your employees fairly, but this is often sadly not the case. Sometimes, as in your case (or when looking back at the situation), when trust is broken and when there is no mutual respect, it's best to part ways - if amicably great, if not, then seeking possible legal advice to protect your rights and to depart and move on as graciously as possible. Some organizations will reflect and learn from such examples and some might not. Personally, I would make sure to tie all loose ends at work, close all projects I've been working on, and communicate with integrity and professionalism until the end and try to keep up my boundaries (and not emotions get ahead of me - and maintain the professionalism of not being in the wrong for what had happened). I think it would make for an easier way out/transition for me. But, as I mentioned, every case is different and unique. I wish you all the best and hope you find a job where the workplace culture and valuing the employees is of the highest priority.
      Zala - MT Coach

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