Quiet quitting and quiet firing: two sides of the same coin?

Quiet quitting

Nia Plamenova
Business & Management Strategy Professor
Professor at the Master in Human Resources Management
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"Quiet quitting" as a term became viral, out of all places, on TikTok. In July 2022, a 24-yeard old New York engineer posted a video about quiet quitting to his (now) 13K followers, and it started a wildefire of hashtags and re-posts. Quiet quitting means that employees do only what is necessary, they don't actually quit but they don't go the "extra mile" or put any additional effort into their work. 

China had its equivalent with the "Lying flat" movement (tang ping), that emerged as a backlash to the country's pressure cooker view of work (for instance, the 996 culture in the Chinese tech industry -working from 9am to 9pm 6 days a week). The anti-work thread on Reddit also gathered its fair share of attention.

Some see quiet quitting phenomenon as a social media advertisement for laziness that will rob younger generations of a career, while others think people are finally setting the necessary boundaries at work

Opinions on quiet quitting are divided based on two continuums: bad or good and old or new. Some see it as a social media advertisement for laziness that will rob younger generations of a career, while others think people are finally setting the necessary boundaries at work, taking care of their mental health and re-prioritizing. Some consider quiet quitting to be a new mindset adopted by gen Z while others see it simply as disengagement across generations (as eloquently put in this Atlantic article "What people are now calling "quiet quitting" was, in previous decades, simply known as "having a job"). 

The most pertinent way to view quiet quitting is in connection to psychological contract. A psychological contract is the implicit, unwritten agreement about the employee-employer relationship, based on both sides' expectations of what they "owe" each other. There is ample evidence that a breach of psychological contract leads to counterproductive work behaviors, reduced productivity, and disengagement. When employees perceive they are receiving less than what they give, they naturally diminish efforts, or quiet quit. 

The psychological contract is increasingly tricky for organizations to handle, because the pandemic has altered the expectations of employees significantly

Now, however, the psychological contract is increasingly tricky for organizations to handle, because the pandemic has altered the expectations of employees significantly. Just a few years ago, hybrid work, work-life balance, autonomy and empathic leadership were seen as dream attributes of a job. Now they are considered by many as essential to the employee value proposition. 

The shift in employees' expectations requires of leaders high awareness, lots of enquiries, and it also eliminates the purely transactional from the employee-employer relationship. Most importantly, the new psychological contract requires unprecedented levels of trust in employees. Despite the fact that experts strongly advise against the use of control as a long-term strategy, the use of software programes for tracking screen time, mouse movements and app activity on corporate computers is growing. Control, or the "trust but verify" approach, will not work in this new era of work. 

Quiet firing refers to managers quietly "forcing" employees out by giving them bad shifts, switch their teams, and withholding feedback

What is more, shortly after the quiet quitting trend went viral, a mirror term emerged in mainstream media: quiet firing. Quiet firing refers to managers quietly "forcing" employees out by giving them bad shifts, switch their teams, asking them to do tasks unrelated to their expertise, and withholding feedback. This is not a new tendency and is attributed to an inability to give negative feedback, conflict avoidance and overall bad management. 

Yet, quiet firing can also be viewed through the lens of psychological contract, as a manifestation of employers' unmet (and unrealistic) expectation that employees should go above and beyond for their job. Organizations need to re-assess such assumptions, as well as what they are offering in return.

Can we start re-building the new psychological contract?

  • Overcommunicate and build meaningful relationships

Quiet firing entails lack of communication -that is precisely the opposite of what we need now. Create an environment that is conducive to transparent dialogue and give voice to employees. Meaningful relationships are the quickest way towards engagement: be aware that digital tools are useful for starting relationships, but they are not ideal for deepening them, so take full advantage of the days when more people are in the office. Informal check-ins can give managers insights into the employee experience before it's too late, and they have quiet quit. For those employees that don't seem responsive to feedback, exhaust all possible ways of delivering it, and for teams, consider strategies to improve communication between team members. 

  • Personalize job design and give employees the opportunity to job craft

Job crafting is the responsibility of the employee, yet leaders need to provide the conditions for employees to negotiate and propose personalized deals and tweak aspects of their job position to feel more engaged. The most challenging part of this is reprioritizing to-do lists, make an effort to shuffle or remove tasks that downgrade the employee experience. 

  • Emotional salary

It's crucial to be sensitive to employee's needs for flexibility and other perks, and adapt rewards to the different generations. Recognition also has to be amped up to give visibility to employee efforts and successes -recognizing employees should become a strategic priority to avoid disengagement.

  • Be diligent and transparent about extra work

Establish clearly what is considered extra work and how it is rewarded. According to an Adecco employment report for Spain, 45% of those who worked extra hours last year were not compensated in any way. Compensation doesn't need to be monetary, but it is vital that there is one, and that doing extra work is not taken for granted. 

  • Develop talent with sustainability in mind

Employability is part of the new psychological contract: people expect that if / when they leave and organization, their value on the job market is higher than before. Offer opportunities for upskilling and career development, and offer them not only to the high performers or employees of strategic value to the company.

  • Careful with overselling

Never before have marketing and recruitment been closer, and this is a problem for the psychological contract: make clear to new recruits what they can expect, lead with the good but don't oversell or hide negative aspects of the position. Otherwise, you are threatening trust and set yourself up to for an easy breach of psychological contract.

  • Measure employee attitudes

Part of the reasons for quiet quitting is employees perception that they are not truly taken into account. Anonymous questionnaires, climate, and culture surveys (preferably handled by a third party) are a less direct approach to stay on top of employee perceptions and identifying what needs to be addressed ASAP. Follow through is key to gain employee trust. 

In the end, there are many ways to address employee perception that organizations are not meeting their end of the bargain. With the current economic situation neither quiet quitting, nor quiet firing are adequate steps towards organizational health -rebuilding and reinventing the psychological contract just might be.

It's worth mentioning that the TikToker whose quiet quitting post went viral, clarified afterwards that he never said that he himself had quiet quit his job.