Jobs and the Future of Work

What is quiet firing and how can companies fix it?

Quiet firing is when leaders create a negative environment for underperforming employees in the hope they will quit.

Quiet firing is when leaders create a negative environment for underperforming employees in the hope they will quit. Image: Unsplash/Marten Bjork

Joe Galvin
Chief Research Officer, Vistage
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Future of Work

  • Quiet firing is when leaders create less than ideal working conditions for underperforming employees in the hope they will quit.
  • It may not be a new trend but the process has become easier with the rise in hybrid working, according to a workplace researcher.
  • There are significant implications, as one employee’s negative experience may infect the entire organization and spread toxicity, he warns.
  • Investing in leaders and effective performance management processes can help improve communication channels and accountability in teams.

Joe Galvin is the chief research officer for Vistage, a CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses.

While social media makes “quiet firing” seem like a brand-new trend, it’s a tale as old as time. For decades, some leaders have purposefully curated a negative working environment for underperforming employees in hopes they’ll quit rather than having to have an uncomfortable conversation or offer a costly severance package. But with the rise of remote and hybrid work, quiet firing has become easier than ever, as leaders can more easily avoid their direct reports.

There are significant implications to quiet firing. If a leader stops giving someone assignments, their work will get pushed onto a higher-performing colleague’s lap, as the company is not actively hiring a replacement to take on that burden. One employee’s negative experience may infect the entire organization—having a disgruntled employee on staff can easily have a domino effect and spread toxicity.

Quiet firing is a new name for an old problem: poor management. And while it’s about bad leaders, the solution lies within the C-suite, which must ensure leaders are not making costly mistakes such as quiet firing.

Invest in leaders to prevent quiet firing—and quiet quitting

The adage goes, “People don’t quit jobs; they quit their leaders.” Leaders have the biggest impact on their direct reports’ day-to-day experience and play an essential role in employee retention. Quiet firing will only lead to quiet quitting. Leaders account for 70% of the variance in team engagement, and their efforts substantially impact the bottom line of entire organizations, according to research from Gallup.

Still, very few organizations have truly invested in leaders—58% of leaders said they did not receive any management training last year, according to the latest Global Leadership Forecast. Given the crucial nature of the leader’s role in the entire company’s health, what can CEOs do to ensure front-line leaders aren’t falling into the fallacies of weak management?

Develop leadership skills to help grow the company

Business leaders must invest in their company to ensure consistent growth, and the most successful organizations prioritize building great leaders.

Ongoing leadership development and training programs have become key determinants of an organization’s ability to keep employees engaged. A leader must have solid leadership and performance management skills to attract and retain high-performing employees, positively impacting the bottom line. Recent research estimates that voluntary turnover costs US companies $1 trillion annually.

Development must be considered at the individual level and include customized plans that identify how high a leader wants to go on their leadership climb, the skills and tools they need, and a timeline for how they will get there. Plus, in today’s hybrid and flexible work environment, it’s crucial to consider how a leader’s team will function—do they need to manage individuals across various platforms or is their staff entirely virtual or in-person? How will this impact their connection with employees, and what tools do they need to bridge gaps?

On a core level, developing skills such as conflict resolution, accountability, and communication is essential for all leaders. Therefore, it should be a top consideration for CEOs when creating and implementing development programs within their organization.

Beyond building skills, companies can also consider the following:

  • Establish workgroups and meetings for leaders within your organization that allow a leader to practice and learn problem-solving and collaboration to help them expand their knowledge of themselves, others, and the company.
  • Implement weekly or monthly programs to promote open and ongoing access to leadership curriculum (as opposed to limiting access to a single training event).
  • Offer stretch assignments, job rotations, and special projects, providing an opportunity to contribute at a level greater than their functional area.

Increase accountability for leaders through listening

CEOs must understand their employees’ goals, interests, and motivating factors. Employees want to feel heard—a UKG Workforce Institute study (pdf) found that 74% of employees claim to be more productive at work when they are listened to. Additionally, the companies that perform well financially have 88% of their employees indicate they feel heard.

Business leaders can implement open-door policies, regular check-in meetings, mentorship programs, and employee resource groups to ensure leaders and employees have the space to have a voice.

This sentiment should be reflected across every level: leaders should be encouraged to have open and honest conversations with their staff. They should be empowered to take meaningful action to support their teams. If someone goes from a star employee to suddenly unengaged, what levies can we pull to better understand what might be holding them back or impacting their performance?

It’s also essential to create clear pathways for employees to try new programs within the company or pursue other internal roles that might be a better fit. Business leaders can accomplish this by circulating internal job postings, enhancing a company’s recruitment strategy, providing career development opportunities for employees, and being a positive communication practice. They can also encourage direct leaders to have regular big-picture conversations with their direct reports to better understand their goals and what would work best for them.

Employees don’t need to be quiet fired—they may just need a role that’s a better fit for their skills and interests.

Manage performance consistently and honestly

Having clear role expectations and creating accountability for performance gives employees the autonomy to improve their work. Leaders must set standards, evaluate, constructively critique, and grade performance. To support this, an effective performance management process must be in place to create clear communication channels and manage accountability in a hybrid workplace.

Effective performance evaluations have a steady frequency and standardized process. Some examples of best practices Vistage members are seeing and using in-the-field, include:

  • Goals: On a bi-weekly basis, an employee and their leader agree to three performance goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timely).
  • Weekly reporting: Before a check-in meeting, the employee sends a brief report to the leader on how they did on these goals and the challenges they faced. They also complete a quantitative self-evaluation and proposed goals for the following week.
  • 1:1 connection: At the one-on-one meeting, the leader coaches the employee on how to solve challenges better. They also agree to or revise the proposed goals and affirm or revise the performance evaluation.
  • Track progress: The performance evaluation is submitted to a promotion review system overseen by HR. The leader and HR track progress and trends over time.

Instead of trying to force someone out with quiet firing, leaders who have clear expectations eliminate surprises and give employees a chance to either improve or determine that this isn’t the right role or company for them. With a clear and actionable process in place, leaders can feel more confident in their decision to terminate an employee when and if it’s time. There’s a more significant cost to keeping employees on staff who aren’t interested in improving their performance or aren’t a good fit; it’s wasting everyone’s time and energy, including the underperforming employee.

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