Employers are frequently hesitant to fire employees for a variety of reasons. However, quietly excluding them in the hope that they will quit often results in even greater harm.
Eliza, a marketing manager, returned from vacation to find an email from her boss asking her to arrive at work early the next day. “I immediately feared the worst,” she says. “I knew the job wasn’t a good fit for me. My probation had previously been extended; there was an expectation of weekend work and post-work drinking that didn’t suit me. I assumed he’d taken advantage of my time off to fire me.”
When Eliza arrived at her boss’s office, she was not immediately fired. Instead, she was informed of a company restructure, which included a complete rewrite of her job description. Someone else would take over her responsibilities, and she would be expected to work remotely in a new administrative position.
Throughout the weeks that followed, Eliza’s professional life became significantly quieter. Instead of developing the marketing strategy for the London-based events agency from the office or attending live shows as part of her job, her main responsibilities now included simply being available between 0900 and 1800, sending the occasional email, and completing the odd routine task from home.
Eliza had effectively been frozen out by her employer. Barely a month later, she quit. “It was humiliating – I was made to feel worthless,” she says. “It was the worst experience of my career: I’d rather have been just fired on the spot and paid off than have to go through that.”
Jobs and the workers hired to do them may not always be a good fit. In these cases, companies and bosses may decide that the employee should leave. Some may use formal channels to show employees the door, but others, like Eliza’s boss, may act in such a way that the employee chooses to leave. Methods differ; managers may marginalise employees, make their lives difficult, or even set them up to fail. This can happen over weeks, months, or even years. In either case, the goal is the same: to demonstrate to the employee that they have no future with the company and to encourage them to leave.
This is known as ‘constructive dismissal’ in open cases: When an employee is forced to leave due to the employer’s hostile work environment. The more subtle phenomenon of gently nudging employees out the door has recently been dubbed ‘quiet firing’ (the obvious inverse of ‘quiet quitting,’ in which employees do their job but no longer). Employers prefer to be indirect and avoid conflict rather than lay off workers. However, in doing so, they frequently unintentionally cause even more harm.
The path of least resistance
For myriad reasons, bosses have long tried to nudge workers they perceive as underperforming or being a bad cultural fit out the door. “This has been happening in workplaces for decades,” says Christopher Kayes, professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business, based in Washington, DC.
The tactic means firms and managers can end up saddled with workers they don’t want, leading to managers engaging in behaviours often seen as passive-aggressive
The reasons for this are numerous. Companies may terminate employees if they violate their contracts, for example. However, if managers simply dislike their employees or see them as average or mediocre performers, removing them becomes more difficult, often necessitating lengthy processes involving performance management programmes and multiple warnings.
“Companies are usually hesitant to let go of a worker,” Kayes says. Firing creates a “immediate sense of sides being created,” which, at worst, can land the company in court if the worker contests it, potentially generating negative headlines about the workplace. “It’s often easier to simply let an underperforming employee stay on the job rather than go through the process of firing and potentially suing.” Employers frequently do not want to expose themselves to risk or conflict, says Suzanne Horne, partner in employment law at London-based Paul Hastings. “The easier option is to subtly encourage someone to leave. If the employee eventually resigns, the ‘no-fault approach’ is used: no severance is required, conflict is avoided, and both parties are ultimately satisfied.”
Managing perceived poor performance, working with the employee to improve output, and transforming them into a valuable resource for the company would be an alternative solution. However, according to Kayes, bosses are frequently ill-equipped to do so, whether due to a lack of time or training. “Organizations are notorious for failing to prepare leaders for the responsibilities that will be required of them on the job. As a result, they frequently find themselves lacking the resources they require to be effective and deal with employee underperformance.”
In this situation, where firing is viewed as a last resort and managers are unable – or unwilling – to transform the employee into what they want them to be, they frequently take the path of least resistance: quiet firing. “Much of it is ultimately avoidance behaviour and procrastination: managers, in most cases, want to avoid having difficult conversations,” Kayes explains. “Ironically, they are afraid that firing a worker will reflect poorly on them, so they fire them quietly instead.”
Why it often backfires
Managers who engage in quiet firing are likely to be playing the long game. In theory, it’s low risk and low effort; the hope is that by withdrawing support, the worker quickly realises they don’t have a future at the company and leaves.
This approach, however, may have unintended consequences. According to Kayes, the tactic means that firms and managers may end up with employees they don’t want, leading to managers engaging in passive-aggressive behaviours. “You stop providing opportunities for advancement to the employee; you stop inviting them to certain meetings; you stop providing them with important work and feedback.”
There is also the risk of instilling a ‘us and them’ mentality, which could harm workers who are not targeted for quiet firing. “You have engaged employees, and then you have those who are quietly left there, sometimes without their knowledge,” Horne says. “It does not foster a welcoming or high-performing workplace culture.”
Even if a worker leaves without apparent conflict, a quiet firing can have an impact on a company’s reputation; employees may well share their experience in an online review. “Today, there is a greater awareness of employment rights,” says Horne. “People are now more willing to bring up workplace issues, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.”
An employee who is subtly nudged out the door may also have legal recourse. “If you look at each individual aspect of quiet firing, there’s probably nothing serious enough to prove an employer breach of contract,” Horne says. “However, there is the last-straw doctrine: one final act by the employer that, when combined with previous actions, can be asserted as constructive dismissal by the employee.”
More immediate is the mental-health cost to the employee who is deemed expendable by the employer but is never directly informed. “The psychological toll of quiet firing creates a sense of rejection and exclusion from their work group. “This can have a significant negative impact on a person’s well-being,” Kayes says.
Eliza concurs. “Being quietly fired made me feel worthless and useless,” she says. Now happily employed elsewhere, she’s realised that her experience “was a reflection of having a terrible boss, rather than me”. Others who experience quiet firing in more insidious ways over time may not see things as clearly.
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