Icing out employees has been the primary performance management process for far too many managers. That observation may seem harsh, but look around your company or grab your org chart. I bet you can name the employees who aren’t in favor with leadership. Those that buck the system, perhaps challenge the status quo, or just do things differently?
I’ve coached hundreds of leaders and most of them have used passive aggressive behavior—quiet firing—at some point to isolate or push out poor performers. I’ll even give them some grace and say some of it is subconscious. So, how can we set up employees, and the managers that lead them, for better treatment and outcomes? I turned to Paul Lewis, chief customer officer of Adzuna, a job search engine, to talk about what we can do differently to bring more humanity into leadership and managing performance.
Quartz at Work: Move over quiet quitting—we’re now tracking quiet firing. How does that practice impact our workplaces?
Paul Lewis: We have seen quiet firing show up in the workplace in subtle forms, such as a person frequently being left off calendar invites for key discussions which are important to their work and progress in their job. Another seemingly subtle sign of quiet firing may be when an employee is consistently given unpopular projects, shift patterns, or fewer hours.
But there are also more significant signs of quiet firing, including when a person is regularly targeted during team meetings or picked on in front of colleagues, frequently having their opinions or ideas dismissed, or constantly receiving negative criticism rather than constructive feedback. Additional bigger actions likely to stand out include continually being passed over for raises/promotions or getting excuses about why right now is not the best time for them and a person not receiving challenging or interesting assignments even where there are opportunities for them to grow.
We tell employees to own their career and time, but so much of that is impacted by how the system operates. What types and checks and balances do we need at the system level to ensure a better working environment?
There are a couple of ways a company can prevent quiet firing. For one, have executives and senior-level managers conduct regular informal check-in chats. These are a great resource to see how employees are truly feeling on a day-to-day basis and if they are being treated well by their direct managers.
A less direct approach can be sending out anonymous employee surveys to see where the entire workforce stands and how they feel. If many employees feel they aren’t heard, HR can lead the charge in encouraging higher-level managers to set up formalized check-ins and to check employee timelines to see when they had last been promoted or given an earned raise.
Also, implementing a formal performance management process that involves HR is another excellent solution to prevent quiet firing. It allows employees to candidly discuss the challenges they are facing. When companies focus on ways they can support the well-being and success of their employees at the process and system level, we can eliminate toxic behaviors (like quiet firing) at the team level. It will create a more inclusive, productive company culture.
Leaders have the most access, therefore, the most opportunity to negatively impact employees. What can we do differently to help leaders improve?
Leaders have the most significant impact on their direct reports’ day-to-day experience and play an essential role in employee retention. But most of the time, quiet firing happens because they don’t know how to handle certain situations or are conflict-avoidant. Organizations need to invest in their leaders by providing development and training programs on conflict resolution, how to have difficult conversations, giving constructive feedback, accountability, and communication. Then they can manage effectively and appropriately rather than quietly firing. Harvard Business Review shed light on how leaders and employees can feel differently towards the same dialogue. While more than 75% of managers surveyed felt good about the outcome of a challenging discussion with a direct report, fewer than half (46%) of their reports reciprocated the same feeling. It’s, therefore, incumbent for leaders to learn how their words and actions can potentially influence others at work.
How can companies empower their employees to combat quiet firing?
Enforcing the importance of open communication in the workplace will help employees feel more comfortable speaking up if they are subjected to this quiet firing behavior. In addition, this will make them feel more empowered to schedule time with their indirect managers and HR to discuss their concerns about how they are being treated. For example, suppose an employee feels they are performing well, but their direct manager is still unsatisfied. In that case, this will allow them to voice that they want to succeed and grow at the organization and find out what they and their direct manager need to improve to collaborate and improve outputs.
Paul Lewis is the chief customer officer of Adzuna, a job search engine, where he heads up the global marketing team, responsible for growing their audience of job seekers across North America and beyond. In previous roles, he was interim CMO at notonthehighstreet.com, CMO at Hometree, and director of marketing at MOO.com.