Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing & the Culture of Corporate Avoidance

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Whether you read them in a newspaper or saw someone discuss it on social media, chances are you’ve run into the phrase “quiet quitting” — and maybe even “quiet firing”, a related concept. The problem with any new buzzword, of course, is that people might interpret them differently or have some misconceptions. 

This seems especially true when it comes to the definition of quiet quitting; are employees slacking, or are they just overworked to the point where doing the minimum requirements of their job — and not working beyond the scope of their role or designated hours — is being seen as disengaged? Here, we’re delving into the origins of quiet quitting and quiet firing as well as why these terms — and the actions related to them — are trending right now.

What Is Quiet Quitting?

If it’s your first time encountering the phrase, you might picture an employee leaving their job in an undramatic but direct fashion. But quiet quitting doesn’t describe leaving a job itself, but, instead, a rejection of “hustle culture” — a line of thinking that puts work at the center of our lives. 

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As is the case with capitalistic thinking at large, your contributions at your job go hand-in-hand with your worth; working long hours — hours outside of designated work time — is praised, while taking time off is maligned. In short, if you aren’t giving 110% to work, you’re not doing enough. Obviously, hustle culture is a toxic and damaging mindset. Employees end up resentful, overworked and exhausted — and understandably so. Not to mention, any sort of work-life balance is nonexistent. 

All of this said, an employee who’s practicing quiet quitting is limiting their work to official working hours, and they’re not looking to take on more work, or someone’s else’s load; instead, they complete the tasks outlined in their job description. A quiet quitter values their life outside of work. However, because they aren’t giving that unhealthy 110%, employers and critics have attacked quiet quitters for doing the bare minimum — when, in reality, employees are just clocking in, doing their tasks for the day, and clocking out. 

How Did Quiet Quitting Start?

While the concept has existed for a while — in fact, the phrase was coined in 2009 at a Texas A&M economics symposium — TikTok has certainly turned quiet quitting into a more widely talked-about, trending phenomenon. The underlying philosophy amongst quiet quitters? Reclaim your work-life balance — and, more than that, center life instead of work. 

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Over the last few years, the rise in remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to blurred boundaries between work and home. Not to mention, burnout has spread like an epidemic. These conditions led to the “Great Resignation” of the last few years. “Many took advantage of the tight labor market to find new jobs with better salaries, benefits, and work-life balance,” Fortune explains. “Loyalty to oneself over a company became a common sentiment, as many sought higher salaries to keep up with the rising cost of living.”

Of course, not everyone has felt confident enough to resign, change fields or work out a better deal with another company. Some folks can’t afford to do that. But that doesn’t mean these less bold employees aren’t burnt out and overworked. Cue: quiet quitting. 

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Quiet quitting is less about slacking and more about feeling disengaged. There’s a level of apathy amongst quiet quitters. Sometimes, an employee might realize there’s more to life than just work in the wake of a life-changing event; becoming a new parent, caring for a family member, getting married or even navigating the COVID-19 pandemic can all spur an employee to put their career ambitions aside. 

Of course, reprioritizing one’s life isn’t the only reason to become a quiet quitter. Maybe an employee is just increasingly dissatisfied with their job, boss or company as a whole. Low, unfair or inequitable compensation, a toxic work environment, poor management or a company’s fostering of poor work-life balance can all add up. Sometimes, it just takes one of these issues to make one apathetic or less motivated when it comes to work. 

Although they’d rather leave, these quiet quitters might not have financial mobility to do so; instead, they’ll treat work as just collecting a paycheck. Sometimes this leads to a termination — and a severance package — but, given the current U.S. labor shortage, it might also allow an employee to just put less energy toward work all while making the money they need to support themselves.  

What Is Quiet Firing? 

While quiet firing isn’t as well-known as quiet quitting, the two terms are related. The act of quiet firing doesn’t refer to the actual dismissal of an employee. Instead, an employer (or direct manager) might intentionally treat the employee poorly or foster such a bad work environment that the employee reaches a break point and quits. 

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Think of it this way: quiet firing is when your employer wants to break up with you, but, instead of having the guts to do so directly, makes you take action by creating really unsustainable conditions. Moreover, the actions related to quiet firing can take many forms, from denying an employee a deserved promotion or raise to a manager treating an employee differently from the rest of their team or making an example out of them. All in all, these underhand tactics essentially force an employee out. 

The Motivations Behind Quiet Firing

Quiet firing may sound like employers’ response to the widespread quiet quitting trend. And it kind of is — though it’s certainly a more passive-aggressive approach. So, what drives an employer to go down the quiet firing path? 

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One of the main reasons an employer resorts to this tactic? Conflict avoidance. A manager, especially a less experienced one, might fear having tough conversations with an employee. Instead of looking like the “bad guy” outright, a manager is the bad guy but in less obvious ways. Additionally, quiet firing — although a result of a poor work environment or culture — can be hard to prove, meaning less chance of an employee claiming a wrongful termination

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Sometimes, though, quiet firing happens as a result of comparing an employee to others. Maybe someone isn’t showing as much potential or their performance has plateaued over time. For managers, investing time and effort into such employees might not yield the results they want, so they rather focus on other employees and, in turn, neglect the one they’re looking to quietly fire. 

And, finally, there’s the chance that quiet firing is the result of personal conflict. Maybe your manager’s work style clashes with yours — or maybe your personalities or points of view clash. Either way, this might lead to a manager subtly or explicitly mistreating you. At times, this ill will may even stem from unaddressed implicit bias

Is Quiet Quitting Worthwhile?

There are definitely pros and cons to quiet quitting. On the plus side, quietly quitting might do wonders for your mental health. After all, it means you’ve consciously decided to prioritize your well-being and minimize the chances of ending up overworked or burnt out. 

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At the same time, if you’re not totally disinterested in your job, not going the extra mile or staying engaged might mean losing out on promotions or raises; a rift between you and your co-workers; or a decrease in quality in regards to your company’s overall performance, profitability or output. 

With quiet firing, on the other hand, the upsides are less clear. A manager who engages in quiet firing might not want to hurt team morale by outright firing someone, but creating a poor work environment, undoubtedly, can lead to problems for the whole team, anyway. 

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The Culture of Corporate Avoidance

Both quiet quitting and quiet firing might be resolved with better communication across the board. Instead of avoiding conflict or awkward conversations, being direct might lead to some positive outcomes. 

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For instance, if you perceive some unfairness in your employee-employer relationship, negotiating for a better deal or discussing your problems with human resources (HR) might lead to a more fulfilling, balanced job. 

On the other end of things, if you’re considering quietly firing someone whose performance has dipped, it’s better to help them get back on track. That could mean adjusting work expectations or aiding in their work-life balance. Still, putting employees’ mental health first is a must. Regardless of what side of the equation you’re on, the key is to help build a more positive — and less toxic — work culture with people in managerial positions who can handle hard conversations or supporting employees who may feel adrift.

Most of all, this culture should be built on principles like effective communication, collaborative teamwork and transparency. Not only can fostering this kind of environment curb quiet quitting and quiet firing, but it can also boost morale, engagement and overall employee satisfaction.

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