Quiet quitting is a trend that really took hold in 2023 — employees were showing up to work and doing the bare minimum to get by and get paid. Naturally, this was a huge concern for businesses who understand and appreciate the importance of employee engagement and discretionary effort when it comes to remaining competitive. And while quiet quitting is still something to watch out for, some businesses themselves are guilty of a trend that stands to cause even more harm in terms of morale, productivity and performance.
Silent sacking, or quiet firing, is quiet quitting’s lesser-known counterpart. Though you may not have heard the term, odds are that you have witnessed it in the past. Your business may even be guilty of silently sacking an employee or two. Let’s explore the concept of silent sacking and why it’s so detrimental to a forward-thinking business.
What is silent sacking?
The term might sound new, but silent sacking has actually been around for a long time — you might have known it as ‘constructive dismissal’. It’s a passive-aggressive practice with a new name, recently popularised thanks to social media. It might be known as something else now, but the behaviours are much the same. It is when management deliberately creates workplace conditions, or mistreats an employee, in order to encourage employees to quit. Employees are, in effect, forced to resign because they can no longer put up with their work environment, practices or relationships.
The concept is certainly a controversial one, and one most managers wouldn’t own up to — however, certain managers who are uncomfortable with confrontation might be tempted to slowly and subtly nudge an employee out of the door rather than address underperforming employees head-on. A recent LinkedIn News poll shows the extent of this problem — in a survey of over 20,000 respondents, 80% stated that they have either witnessed or experienced silent sacking, with 35% claiming to have experienced it directly.
Signs of silent sacking
Managers who are guilty of silent sacking generally use a number of approaches to alienate employees, make them feel uncomfortable and, ultimately, drive them to quit. The following are just a few examples:
- Limited or no feedback from management — When managers don’t see an employee as part of the long-term picture, they might freeze out employees, cut communication down to a minimum and stop offering advice or encouragement.
- Overwork or underwork — Sometimes managers may under-assign tasks in the hopes that an employee will get bored. Conversely, they might overwork an employee to the brink of burnout.
- Unfulfilling work — Unsurprisingly, if a manager is trying to get rid of an employee, they are likely to assign that employee unpleasant, boring or unfulfilling work.
- No opportunities for advancement or training — Managers who are trying to usher employees out the door will hold back on opportunities for progression and development until employees begin to see the role as a dead-end.
- No raises — Similar to a lack of advancement, a common sign of silent sacking is a refusal to increase pay. Vague promises of pay increases may be given, but they never materialise.
- Endless red tape — To make life more difficult for certain employees, managers may choose to introduce extra red tape or implement new policies to make life harder than it needs to be.
- Social alienation and exclusion — Some employees have reported feeling ‘frozen out’ at work. Once friendly coworkers suddenly become distant, no longer extend invitations to group lunches and stop exchanging pleasantries. This can all happen with encouragement from management.
- Unequal treatment — Employees who have been silently sacked often report unequal treatment, where managers appear to come down harder on them than others, or refuse to be as flexible with them as they are with others in the team.
- Micromanagement — When a manager is constantly hovering over your shoulder and questioning your every move, it can be disconcerting and frustrating, ultimately driving you away from the business.
- Undermining confidence — Managers who are looking to alienate certain employees might make deliberate steps to undermine that employee’s confidence by questioning their decisions, abilities or standards, or even asking them if they believe they’re a good fit for the role.
How silent sacking can damage your organisation
Silent sacking may be unpleasant for everyone involved, but how big of a problem does it represent? What are the impacts of this toxic workplace trend on performance, engagement and productivity?
Low employee morale
Quiet firing doesn’t just affect one person — there are trickle-down effects to the entire team and company in terms of morale. The freezing out of an employee and the unfair treatment that one employee experiences will be witnessed and felt by their coworkers. Now they’ve seen what can happen to an employee who steps out of line, the unspoken question is whether it might happen to them, too. They’ve witnessed toxic, unreasonable behaviour and as a result, it’s impossible to have a favourable view of the company any longer.
Silent sacking messes with team dynamics in a number of ways. Tasks and responsibilities that were carried out by one person might be shifted to someone else, putting an undue strain on another member of the team. Managers might tell employees to stop including the ostracised employee in group projects, or to stop asking for their contributions. Healthy companies require, and rely upon, team cooperation. When a wrench is thrown into this machine, it can be hard to keep standards high.
High staff turnover
In organisations, dissatisfaction and disengagement spreads like a virus. When employees witness someone being treated unfairly, when they see the impact it’s having on their wellbeing and mental state, even once dedicated employees might decide to jump ship. High performing employees will always have options, and if they feel their workplace is unsafe or toxic in any way, it’s likely they’ll look for opportunities elsewhere.
You’re showing you don’t care about employee potential
The real frustrating thing about silent sacking is the substantial wasted potential. A once promising employee is being pushed out instead of encouraged. Rather than getting to the bottom of potential performance or productivity issues and giving an individual an opportunity to develop and improve, they are simply being frozen out. Doing this will speak volumes to the rest of the organisation — if you struggle, you will be let go rather than receive support, feedback and motivation from your managers.
Long-term damage to your company’s reputation
Toxic practices get noticed. Not just by your employees, but by the wider world. Thanks to social media and sites like Glassdoor, employees and prospective employees are able to exchange experiences and reviews. Nothing stays hidden for long — if an employee feels unfairly treated, they’re able to let others know, and word will spread. This will ultimately impact your company’s reputation and deter promising candidates from applying to your business.
It damages psychological safety
Psychological safety is incredibly important when it comes to determining team and company success. Employees want to know that they won’t be blamed, humiliated or punished when they take chances, make mistakes and slip up. Taking accountability is one thing (and it’s something employees appreciate), but when employees feel unable to make errors and learn from them, they stop asking questions. They stop raising concerns and they stop coming up with ideas. Ultimately, psychological safety takes a nosedive and you’re left with a group of employees who aren’t motivated to be innovative or go that extra mile.
Silent sacking invites legal action
One major downside of silent sacking is, of course, the litigious side. Employees who feel they were compelled to resign due to unreasonable or unfair working conditions might have a case for constructive dismissal. Such cases would affect your company not only financially, but in terms of reputation.
Letting employees go is never fun. However, it can be done in a way that isn’t unfair or cruel. After you have spent the required time and effort to try to bring an employee up to speed via training, motivation and encouragement and the problem persists, it might be time to part ways. But companies who take the time to do so in a respectful way demonstrate they have a certain level of dignity that will speak volumes of their values and culture.