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Why Is Everything in the Workplace 'Quiet' These Days?

A businessman sitting at a table with a laptop and cell phone.

​When the term "quiet quitting" started making headlines last year, many HR professionals began looking for signs that their employees were walking out the door—under the radar, of course.

Not long after, some companies started quiet firing, where managers would use passive-aggressive tactics to get employees to leave instead of outright firing them. Next was quiet hiring as organizations moved employees around to fill talent gaps and hired contract and part-time workers, rather than full-time replacements.

But it doesn't end there. Quiet promoting is now a thing, too. This term describes the practice of giving employees more to do without providing a raise to compensate for the extra work. And the latest buzzword, quiet leading, is assigned to managers and bosses who don't actively build relationships with their teams. Instead, they are detached, which drives a decline in employee engagement and productivity. 

Why Is 'Quiet' So Popular Now? 

Before another "quiet" trend emerges, it's important to understand that these activities are a result of both the COVID-19 pandemic and society's lack of real communication, said Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP, CEO of WithIN Leadership in Tampa, Fla.

"We've become more accustomed to doing things on our own and not communicating with each other IRL [in real life]," said Currence, author of SHRM's eight-part behavioral competency book series, Making an Impact in Small Business (SHRM, 2017). "Without the daily practice of saying uncomfortable things in the workplace, which should always be done in person, we lost the art of telling an employee they're not performing up to standards or sharing with our manager that we need assistance with an important project."

Though the quiet terms are new, the processes they describe have always been around. " 'Quiet quitting' and 'quiet firing' are new terms for activities that have been happening for years," said Christine Berger, a consultant and legal counsel at EmployHR in New Orleans. "Broadly speaking, 'quiet' can be described as a lack of engagement."

Other HR experts say the only thing new about quiet quitting and other "quiet" trends are the terms being used to describe them.

"It used to be known as 'unengaged,' " said Jathan Janove, principal at Janove Organization Solutions in Portland, Ore. "I remember many years ago someone explaining to me that there were two ways to quit a job: quit and leave or quit and stay. Nevertheless, I do believe the pandemic, and perhaps the ubiquity of social media, have played a role in increased quitting and staying." 

According to Janove, the pandemic caused many people to think about the meaning of life, and they pondered who they were, where they were going and what their purpose was.

"In some cases, that may lead to external change with people thinking, 'During my limited time on this planet, perhaps I need to find a better destination or path for my professional life.' But it can also lead to internal change, such as, 'I'll keep my head down in order to pay my bills but my real passion, energy and focus in life will be outside the workplace,' " he explained. 

Avoiding the Quiet Trend 

As an HR professional, whether you're dealing with employees who are quiet quitting, or bosses who are quiet leading, quiet firing or quiet promoting, one thing is clear: It's a red flag that communication has broken down in your workplace, and now is the time to reverse course, Currence said.

"I believe the 'quiet' practice is the easy thing to do, because people are unsure exactly what to say, so they don't say anything at all," she explained. "Being 'quiet' about employment practices is not being kind, respectful or considerate."

When employees or employers are quiet about their feelings, they don't give the other side the opportunity to fix whatever the outstanding issue might be, Currence said. That leads to people missing out on hearing each other's viewpoints and learning.

"We become more rigid and radical in our thinking," she said. "This results in employees feeling unseen, unheard and unvalued, which erodes the employee experience."

On the management side, it's important to state observable facts to employees who may seem disengaged or motivated to leave. Start by showing curiosity by asking, "What's going on?" or "How can I help?" Then listen empathetically and make sure you state the desired outcome of your conversation, Currence advised. At the end, after suggesting ways to improve the situation, ask for a commitment, since the goal is to get the employee to say "Yes."

"There's something magical that happens to our ability to commit when we say that word out loud," Currence said.

Ensuring there is a collective sense of purpose at an organization is critical as well. According to Janove, asking questions like, "Why are we here?" and "What are the core values?" can help cultivate purpose.

"When you start with the why, it leads to healthy and productive discussions about the what, the overall actions that need to be taken for organizational success, and the various steps necessary to produce the actions that support the why," he said.

Berger recommended asking employees to complete engagement surveys every six months to check the pulse of the organization. Also, coach employees and listen to their needs by scheduling one-on-one time with them (and their managers) and using a recognition program. 

"[Make sure] your employees have the right tools for their job to help support an engaged workforce," she said.

Like Berger, Janove believes engagement is the antidote for "quiet" everything.

"Engaged employees make better people: parents, spouses, friends, citizens and more," he said. "No employer should accept quiet quitting, and no employer should engage in quiet firing." 

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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