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Between 2008 and 2010, American firms laid off more than 8 million workers. Today, as the threat of another recession looms, many employers are again considering trimming their workforce. But rather than firing or laying off workers outright, research suggests that companies may increasingly be turning to another, subtler approach: quiet firing.
To avoid the financial, psychological and legal costs associated with forcing people out, some companies may intentionally create a hostile work environment that encourages people to leave voluntarily. Of course, on an individual level, this is hardly a new idea—managers have long used similar tactics to push out underperformers without paying them severance or risking retaliation. But more recently, companies such as Tesla and Meta increasingly seem to be using quiet firing as a workforce reduction strategy on a wider scale.
Indeed, one study found that the majority of workers who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because of low pay, a lack of growth opportunities or feeling disrespected. Employees may find themselves operating under new policies or expected to take on new responsibilities, their jobs slowly transforming into something that's further and further from what they signed up for, until resigning feels like the only option. Worse still, many employees don't even understand what quiet firing is—let alone how to see it coming or what to do when it happens to them.
That's why earlier this year, we asked more than 1,000 American workers from a wide array of industries and roles to share their experiences with quiet firing. Based on their responses, we identified several common indicators that may suggest an employer is trying to "motivate" workers out the door.
Quiet Firing Warning Signs
Changes related to work responsibilities:
- Reassigning important job responsibilities to other employees
- Demoting an employee or changing their job description
- Not assigning promising new opportunities
- Setting up unreasonable performance targets
- Giving an employee responsibilities that are undesirable or misaligned with their role
- Preventing an employee from receiving a well-deserved promotion
Changes related to compensation:
- Pay cuts
- Preventing an employee from earning more by taking on extra work or overtime
- Not providing expected yearly bonuses or raises
Changes related to working conditions:
- Changing work hours or regular shifts
- Increasing workloads to unreasonable or unmanageable levels
- Forcing an employee to relocate
- Taking away "perks," such as an office or parking spot
Changes related to supervisor communication:
- Not discussing career trajectory or providing performance feedback
- Evaluating an employee unfairly, providing excessively harsh feedback or constantly criticizing their work
- "Ghosting" or repeatedly cancelling meetings
- Not providing critical information related to an employee's work and responsibilities
- Not giving an employee credit for their work, or even worse, giving the credit to others
Experiencing these changes can be truly demoralizing. If your workplace or supervisor makes you feel incompetent, unappreciated, disenfranchised, depressed or isolated, it's only natural to want to leave. In fact, more than a quarter of the people in our survey reported that in response to these signs of quiet firing, they did in fact begin looking for a new job (illustrating that this can in fact be an effective — if immoral—workplace reduction strategy).
But many other people shared ways in which they were able to address the problem and move forward. Below, we've condensed their experiences into 10 tactical steps you can take if you're worried that you may be getting quietly fired—before you throw in the towel:
What Can You Do If You're Being Quietly Fired?
1. Rationally diagnose the situation.
Are you really being quietly fired? Or are you overanalyzing the situation? Are there objective circumstances that can explain the decisions your managers are making? Are unfavorable changes really only targeting you, or is everyone affected equally? In a sensitive and uncomfortable situation, it is easy to misinterpret other people's actions. If your workplace has become truly unbearable and is harming your mental health, it may be time to quit — but it's important to make sure you have an accurate understanding of your situation before reacting.
2. Knowledge is power.
To ensure you're up to date on what kinds of changes to your working conditions are or aren't acceptable, it's critical to familiarize yourself with your company's rules and regulations. You should also be knowledgeable about the criteria for promotion and raises, as well as the conventions of your particular profession, especially when it comes to pay scales and compensation structures. This frame of reference can help you determine whether your experiences are typical for your company and industry, or you are in fact being quietly fired.
3. Document the good.
Keep written records of your achievements and accomplishments. Make sure you can demonstrate the value you have added to the company in terms of tangible, quantifiable outcomes.
4. Document the bad.
Equally important, keep written records of any evidence that you are being mistreated. That includes emails, evaluation reports, written feedback, etc. Also be sure to document different incidents that have made you feel unappreciated, excluded or undervalued.
5. Communicate openly and proactively.
If you're concerned about your situation, approach your supervisor and have an open and honest conversation about how you feel. Be as specific as possible, and try to focus on tactical ways that your manager can make things better, rather than simply complaining.
6. Seek legal help.
Sometimes consulting with an attorney or union representative can help you assess the severity of a situation and determine the best way to handle it. In addition, sometimes just the knowledge that you have consulted with an attorney or union representative is enough to deter a supervisor from continuing down the path of quiet firing.
7. Protect your mental health.
The stress associated with being quietly fired can take a substantial toll on your mental health. To help you cope with these challenges, consider working with a therapist, counselor or other professional. You can also reach out to friends, family and colleagues who can both provide support and offer tactical advice.
8. Quietly quit.
This approach has its own downsides, but especially while you determine the best way to proceed, quietly quitting (that is, disengaging from your work and only doing the bare minimum) can be an effective option to alleviate some of the stress associated with being quietly fired.
9. Take legal action.
Part of the point of quiet firing is that it makes it harder for employees to take legal action — but that doesn't mean there's no recourse at all. To build a legal case, you will likely need to prove that the company has fundamentally and unfairly altered your working conditions, and that those changes have led to real, demonstrable damages in terms of your income or wellbeing.
10. Before quitting, negotiate.
Finally, if it is clear to you that the company wants to push you out and you've decided it's not worth staying, don't just turn in your resignation. Instead, initiate a frank discussion with your supervisor indicating your belief that the company is looking to trim its workforce and sharing the terms under which you would agree to leave. For example, consider offering to leave voluntarily in exchange for six months of severance, a positive recommendation, job placement support or whatever other benefits are important to you. You won't necessarily get everything you ask for — but if your company wants you out and doesn't want to fire you, that means you have leverage. So don't leave money on the table when you walk out the door.
To be sure, implementing these recommendations can sometimes be easier said than done. In our study, we found that more than 40% of respondents who had experienced quiet firing simply tried to ignore the problem, expressing a reluctance to cause trouble or spark conflict. But when you know the warning signs to look out for and the steps you can take to address them, you'll have the tools you need to get ahead of the problem. And whether you decide to quit or stick it out, remember that you deserve to be appreciated and valued — at your current job or the next.
Ayalla Ruvio is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, and the Director of the Master of Science in Marketing Research (MSMR) program. Her research focuses on the wellbeing and behavior of consumers and employees. Forrest Morgeson is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. His research focuses on customer-firm relationships and the financial value of both customer and employee assets to firms.
This article is adapted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.