WTF   //   August 31, 2022  ■  6 min read

WTF is quiet firing? (and how it embodies passive-aggressive work culture)

Passive-aggressive work habits and management techniques are being dragged uncomfortably into the spotlight.

People’s rejection of hustle culture and the notion that you must go above and beyond your job description to impress bosses – a term recently coined “quiet quitting” – has been raked over since it surfaced in late July.

While discussion around it may be new – the phenomenon itself isn’t. And that’s made it open season on another longstanding, murky workplace tactic – but this time it’s the managers being scrutinized. Enter: “quiet firing.”

So WTF is quiet firing?

It’s how a manager avoids the discomfort of firing someone outright. Instead, they will use a bunch of different passive-aggressive tactics that have the same goal: they make the employee want to quit themselves.

“Quiet firing happens for many, many reasons,” said Sarah Blankenship, who has her own career coaching business that is focused on Gen X and has seen quiet firing firsthand on multiple levels. “It’s an employer who doesn’t want to necessarily fire someone because they don’t want them to get unemployment or they don’t want to rock the boat in any shape or form.”

It’s a tactic that’s been hidden in plain sight for years. “It’s not being openly talked about for various reasons – because that’s another way of passive-aggressive behavior that we’re seeing from employers,” said Izabela Lundberg, an expert in organizational culture and leadership development and the founder of the Legacy Leaders Institute. “It’s not giving opportunities for people to advance or to instead phase them out.” 

What are examples of quiet firing?

Naturally, it varies depending on the individual situation. One example is how an employer will start to ice out an employee. They may do that by giving them their least favorite assignments all the time, not adding them to important email threads and excluding them from certain meetings. Or, it might involve overloading someone with responsibilities that leads to burnout.

It can also extend beyond the manager alone and involve a group of people – for example, men – excluding a female worker from important discussions.

“Rather than implementing strategies that might mitigate burnout, some employers seem to have turned to quiet firing, which fails to open the floor for honest dialogue that would help employees share their thoughts, and employers to implement changes accordingly,” said Lívia Martini, chief people officer at corporate wellness platform Gympass.

On Blankenship’s LinkedIn post about quiet firing, other workers shared their own experiences.

“I was quiet fired by a practice manager and the CEO of our practice,” wrote one person. “It was the worst experience ever. I had my responsibility stripped and given to her daughter-in-law and received a $5 an hour pay cut.”

Lundberg shared the example of someone she knows who was so exhausted from being overworked he had to quit, only to find the company hired five new people to cover his role once he’d left.

“During that time, they would not get any supportive help for him, which is a huge differentiator,” said Lundberg. “We know a lot of people have been overworked during Covid, a lot of positions have been shaved off, people want to save money. At the same time, they’re just not changing the status quo and are creating more pressure.”

Aside from a corporate setting, it can also take place for frontline workers. For example, Blankenship worked as a server in a restaurant for four years where she had a manager who would punish workers who’d angered him by assigning them to the worst section that brought in the least amount of tips.

“In service industries, they’ll cut your hours where you can’t make a living wage, or they’ll schedule you on days when you’re not available to work and say oh well,” said Blankenship. “It happens everywhere.”

Is quiet firing actually a euphemism for workplace bullying? And what should someone do if they are being quietly fired?

Blankenship believes workplace bullying is at the heart of quiet firing. However, recourse isn’t as simple as just going to HR – partly because HR may be aware already that this is a tactic being used to get rid of someone, said Lundberg. After all, an employee may not have actually been performing well, or have been difficult to manage themselves. So not necessarily an all-out victim.

And firing someone is never easy. This year, there has been a 24% increase in the number of online searches for the phrase “how to fire someone” compared to last year, and a 180% jump in searches for “when to fire someone,” according to marketing services company Conductor.

“Across all industries, quiet firing trends are alarming for HR professionals who are working to create an engaging workplace and retain top talent amid a tight job market,” said Irene DeNigris, chief people officer at Conductor. “We owe employees feedback on their performance, engagement, cultural fit, and/or business challenges that may impact their role.”

Rather than quietly firing employees, managers should address issues directly and openly in a constructive dialogue with their employees. During this conversation, performance issues should be raised, and a plan outlined for how to either move forward or exit the company, she added.

The point is, there are more constructive ways a manager should deal with poor performance or bad attitude, than quiet firing.

“It needs to be talked about until people address it and say ‘I don’t want to deal with this kind of behavior anymore,’” said Blankenship. “The manager that commences quiet firing does so within the boundaries of the law and the rules of the organization. They can get very creative without being considered a bully, but at the heart of it, that’s what it is.” 

Lundberg said that it’s very rare that once someone gets to the stage of being quietly fired to find a solution within that workplace, depending on the scenario.

“It’s not always a single-handed decision from the manager or supervisor,” said Lundberg. “They’re asking how to get someone to be pushed out of the door, out of the company at their free will, versus straight out firing them.”

However, an employee could ask the right questions, engage the department and figure out the situation to see if it’s a climate for possible change or if it’s best to step away.

Do quiet firing and quiet quitting work hand in hand?

“Neither quiet quitting nor quiet firing are healthy,” said Lundberg. “Both of them are a reflection of a very toxic culture.” If an employer or manager is deploying quiet firing, it reflects badly on their company culture, she added.

“While quiet quitting and quiet firing were born from lack of communication on both the employer’s and employee’s ends, these trends are paving the way for companies to address how they might fail to tend to the needs of their workers,” said Gympass’ Martini.

A preventative measure workers can take when job searching is to ask questions about the company culture and what can be done if someone ever finds themselves in this position. A good sign is if a company fosters healthy communication between managers and employees, even if involves a tough conversation.

On the employer side, Martini said it’s important that leadership ensures managers offer their teams a safe place to air workload concerns, create a culture where people can take breaks, and remind them to value their employees as people not just workers.

“Neither phenomenon is sustainable, and while unfortunate for both parties, I think they’re a great indication that change is on the horizon,” said Martini. “Initiating difficult conversations can be uncomfortable, but often uncover ways both employers and their employees can improve their feelings towards work.”