Three (3) Suggestions to Combat 3 “Quiet” Terms – Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing, & Quiet Promotions

In this article I’ll provide some background on the terms Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing, and Quiet Promotions; talk about why they are poor communication terms; and suggest ways to identify them and combat their main sources in the workplace.

Very few phrases trigger me faster than hearing someone being labeled as a “quiet quitter”. Along with it’s ugly cousins “quiet firing” and “quiet promotion” the three constitute an axis-of-evil in miscommunication. Let’s dive into their meanings as a first step.

Quiet Quitting Quiet Firing Quiet Promotions - Silence is not golden
Quiet Quitting on a professional desktop
Quiet Quitting

What is Quiet Quitting?

Before defining “quiet quitting” what does that phrase bring to mind? Even if you’ve already heard the definition think about the impression the phrase made on you the first time you heard it.

While I found no definitive source, the majority of references suggest that those labeled as quiet quitters are “…performing the tasks defined in their job description – they provide no additional services or time than their job description specifies”.

Is that what you envisioned from the words “quiet quitter”? When I first heard the term, it brought to mind that the person was doing something under-handed, perhaps cheating their company on the money being paid for their time – maybe even going so far as to limit the quality of their work to a point they’re close to being fired (loudly). Instead, the definition sounds more like meeting an actual work contract with boundaries, expectations and clarity of terms (as well as an ability to negotiate if there are extenuating circumstances), and possibly a hint of accountability.

What is Quiet Firing?

Like “quiet quitting”, think about what this phrase brings to mind (or brought to mind earlier).

Quiet firing also has no dictionary definition. Articles describe the action as “…management reducing positive aspects of the work environment, increasing negative aspects of the work environment, or implementing both of the above on a worker in order to incent an employee to leave a position rather than taking the traditional, active, firing action”. This article from Harvard Business Review provides a good bit of information on quiet firing (though I do disagree with their use of the term quiet quitting during the context of the article).

The phrase brought to my mind the movie Office Space, specifically the character Milton Waddams. Part of the plot line is that he was laid off years back but no one communicated his termination to him or accounting. As the company, Initech, goes through a downsizing effort, rather than informing Milton that he’s fired, the “efficiency team” running the downsizing decides to have the company simply stop paying Milton and “it will all work itself out” (in fact, the characters discuss his termination as a joke). While that’s a bit of an artistic exaggeration for the big screen, there’s an underlying, implied “…the employee must be doing something to warrant this ‘firing’…” which, in many examples, is not the case. More on Milton in a minute.

Quiet Firing - people cutout elimination
Quiet Promotion

What is Quiet Promotion?

So, we’ve covered the first two – what comes to mind when you hear “quiet promotion”? It has “promotion” in the name – that has to be good, right”?

For a definition, sources suggest that “…an employee is given more responsibilities, more work, more hours, etc. while continuing to be paid the same amount as before the ‘promotion’…”. Bummed out by the definitions? The short video link at least makes the point with some humor.

Of the three, this may be the most quiet of all with work being added a little at a time, emergency demands after hours becoming routine, etc. – all adding up to an out of balance life. If the topic is raised by the employee it may receive some immediate derision justifying the situation as a “right of passage” or “dues” that have be paid for advancement.

To be clear on my opinion before it’s raised in discussions, there is a distinct difference between proving one’s skills before assuming a new role versus being given the responsibilities with no clear plan or timetable for when the employee will receive reasonable compensation for the duties/services being performed/delivered.

What do these 3 terms have in common?

How are these phrases alike? The first thing to note is that there is nothing new about the actions behind these phrases. These phrases simply represent the current jargon.

Unfortunately all three are exceptionally poor at describing the underlying context where each is used. Thinking back to envisioning what each phrase meant – who was the “good” entity (person/manager-company) versus the “bad” entity in each? How could those surface-level impressions benefit an employer at the expense of an employee?

The root of each is poor communication, lack of leadership, and an absence of trust and/or respect. There seems to be an underlying belief that not communicating about a problem is somehow easier and better than addressing it – is that really true? Perhaps in the short term but I argue that trying to make aggressive business targets with a workforce experiencing one or a mix of these scenarios is far from productive or efficient so management that see these approaches as beneficial are “quietly ignoring” the long term impacts. It’s bad enough when these scenarios occur on a one-off basis and if they are a common occurrence the culture is well on it’s way to toxicity (if not already there).

Circling back to Milton’s case in Office Space, the efficiency managers rather than correcting a big, pre-existing communication problem, they actively choose to make the situation worse through a similar, awful, example of no communication. If you haven’t seen the movie it’s worth the watch and to keep a “no spoilers” zone, let’s just say that the lack of communication is both figuratively and literally gasoline on a flame.

Quiet Trio Commonalities
Good communication

So how can we combat these misleading phrases and their underlying causes?

I suggest these three steps to get to the root of the issues “quietly” eating away at your work culture.

1. Know how to identify each “quiet” type.
Quiet Quitting – Are you finding yourself setting strict boundaries that are being challenged with term such as “being a team player” or demand to always be “going above and beyond”?
Quiet Firing – Are you being excluded from meetings, communications, or other events that you have been a part of in the past? You might feel relieved that everyone is “finally leaving me alone”. Are things you’ve seen as positive “perks” of the job being slowly removed? Are they being removed from everyone or just a select number of people?
Quiet Promotion – Have you been given additional responsibilities for one or more reasons (e.g. a new project/account, someone left your group and hasn’t been replaced, etc.) without any mention of additional compensation? When you mention concerns to your manager about the time/effort commitment, are you promised that you’ll get relief “any day now”? Have you heard that for months?

2. Self-assess and proceed with clear communication, trust and respect. Once you’ve identified one or more of the quiet trio, what now? It’s likely you have some tough choices regarding what the actions mean to you and your relationships in the workplace.

It may be difficult to “step-back” and objectively look at the situation but that is the best starting point before pursuing a discussion with your manager. At a minimum ask yourself “what does this job mean to me?” Other questions that may help you prepare for a conversation include:

  • What are my boundaries? What am I willing or not willing to sacrifice for this position?
  • What are my “tipping points” that will throw my life out of balance?
  • If my life is already out of balance, what sources of help do I have to get back into balance?

It’s worth noting that the answers to the questions above may lead to more difficult questions and decisions about any change you want to achieve. Only you can decide if the uncertainty and (potential) discomfort of the conversation and subsequent change outweighs the ease of staying in an uncomfortable environment.

Poor communication is at the root of the quiet-trio. In short, neither the employer nor the employee wants to have the difficult conversation that will affect a change. Silence is not golden here – it only serves to normalize the behavior.

After you’ve worked through what the situation means to you and have a plan for the conversation, it’s time to meet with your manager. Approach the conversation with respect and trust – proceeding without a baseline level of respect and trust will not be productive. While the topics may have many associated emotions, staying focused on the facts will help avoid those emotions derailing the conversation. During your self-assessment you will have come up with options that will work for you – present those ideas. Listen to the feedback from your manager and pause to consider your response. The concern may not be resolved in a single conversation so it’s a good idea to close the meeting recapping what you agree on, what you’re both taking away to consider, and having a target date for a follow-up discussion.

For leaders looking to create a “safe space” to have difficult conversations or for anyone wanting to have more productive/healthy dialog, I recommend the book Crucial Conversations. No technique will make difficult conversations “pleasant” or “easy” but this resource provides a path to having the conversations earlier and with hopefully better outcomes.

3. Get help for your specific situation.
Some will work through scenarios either on their own or with the support of others. A key is to be able to work with someone that can establish a “safe space” where you can discuss the situation openly and objectively. If you’re struggling with feeling comfortable talking with others in your professional or personal networks, career coaching may be a good alternative.

By understanding what quiet quitting, quiet firing, and quiet promotions are and how they often mis-represent the underlying scenario you are better prepared to identify and combat their root causes with better knowledge, communication, and relationship skills. The alternative conversations may be difficult – in my opinion, the risks and rewards are worth the effort.

The Center for Creative Leadership posted a live stream entitled Hiring, Firing & Employee Engagement in the Quiet Quitting Era (51 min) if you want deeper, panel insights.

If you’re interested in how career coaching might provide some alternatives and relief for your situation, reach out – I’m always glad to have a no-obligation discussion on how Career Coaching by Mindring may help.

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