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Amrit Sandhar

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Managers need to step up to prevent a ‘quiet firing’ culture

Quiet firing is a term for companies that push employees out by allowing a toxic environment. Here's how to stop this from happening in your organisation.
Man in a boat sailing away from an island

There’s been much reported recently on the culture of quiet quitting, where employees are choosing to walk away from extra duties or activities that go beyond the scope of their paid employment. They are no longer prepared to work in an ‘always on’ culture, which often requires investing more personal time and energy over and above their contracted hours, often at the expense of time away from their loved ones, impacting on their own wellbeing and potentially leading to burnout.

Organisations rely on the effectiveness of their managers to ensure their teams are treated with respect and dignity, whilst being productive and effective

But whilst employees are taking back their agency, some managers are, apparently, taking advantage of this new mindset of no longer being willing to accept long hours, extreme pressure and stress. These managers are actively creating a toxic environment, knowing employees will no longer tolerate this, leaving them little choice but to leave – a term being called ‘quiet firing’?

A toxic workplace

Organisations rely on the effectiveness of their managers to ensure their teams are treated with respect and dignity, whilst being productive and effective. Yet, this year’s Microsoft work trend report surveying 20,000 employees in over 11 countries, showed that only 31% of those employees have ever received clear guidance from 1-2-1 meetings with their managers, helping provide clarity on work priorities.

And according to a Gallup report on preventing employee burnout, the top five causes of burnout included unmanageable workloads, unclear communication from managers, and a lack of manager support. If almost 70% of employees are not getting quality 1-2-1 time with their managers, it’s easy to see how this could negatively impact wellbeing and the overall employee experience. Whilst we cannot attribute any of these behaviours as an active attempt by managers to force employees to leave, they certainly will not prevent it.

The same Gallup report goes on to explain that ‘when employees strongly agree that they are often treated unfairly at work, they are 2.3 times more likely to experience high levels of burnout’. This combination of a lack of support, and unfair treatment means it’s not hard to see how some managers could use this to their advantage, creating an environment of quiet firing, leaving individuals little choice but to leave, rather than simply becoming less engaged with work.  

Unmanageable workloads, unclear communication, and a lack of support from managers, whilst impacting wellbeing, go far deeper than just getting in the way of meaningful work. We know from psychological research that feeling excluded from activities can go on to have a profound impact on a sense of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence. What’s leading some managers to behave in this way rather than facing issues that they think may exist?  

The role of leadership in quiet firing

There are still many leaders who hold outdated mindsets, questioning how productive people can be, through working fewer hours or working remotely. The Microsoft report highlighted that 85% of leaders have found it difficult to feel confident that employees are being productive working remotely. The challenge for many leaders is fighting their own confirmation bias; once they begin to suspect an employee is not productive and effective, it could cause them to actively seek evidence to support this view.

Managers need to be held accountable for managing

This could lead to micromanaging, being hypercritical of work, overlooking them for any development opportunities, cancelling 1-2-1 meetings, or excluding them from communication or updates. This is despite a recent BBC report highlighting a halfway review into the UK trial of the four-day working week, where 86% of organisations involved, intended to make the four-day working week permanent, due to the positive impact on productivity. 

According to the Gallup State of the Global Workplace report for 2022, stress is at an all-time high, with 44% of employees experiencing ‘a lot of daily stress the previous day’. When leaders are stressed, according to research highlighted in the HBR, they are more likely to make a binary choice during decision-making. The risk is that once they have decided an employee isn’t capable, or worse, just doesn’t belong in the organisation, leaders risk creating an environment underpinned by that perception, which results in an employee having no choice but to resign. 

How to prevent a potential culture of quiet firing

We need first to address why managers would choose to create this environment that would lead to people leaving, rather than managing a situation. Managers need to be held accountable for managing. This means ensuring every team member is having quality time to discuss workloads, priorities, and personal development.

With so many organisations choosing hybrid and remote working, organisations, through their managers, need to demonstrate a commitment to their employees. It means working harder to keep employees feeling connected to the organisation, by ensuring managers prioritise, and have enough time to undertake this important activity. 

Data is important and whilst some organisations carry out exit interviews very well, there is still an opportunity to improve these and gain valuable feedback about why people are leaving. Often managers are not held to account for the environment they create, which can be gained through insights from exit interviews. This data should be shared amongst managers so they can see what former employees are saying, allowing managers to be aware of the environment they are creating and that this is visible to others across the organisation. 

Managers should be supported by regularly revisiting the organisational values, reminding them of what the organisation stands for, and the vision for the culture, and helping them shape and demonstrate those behaviours that would create a great place to work. We also need to equip managers with the skills to improve their resilience and to better deal with stress, which will support their own wellbeing, as well as address the fact that managers are more likely to make a binary decision when stressed.

Supporting managers in how they can challenge their assumptions and judgements of others, through development opportunities, could also help prevent the creation of an environment where employees feel they are compelled to leave. 

Most managers come to work to do a great job

Effective management has never been more critical

In summary, most managers come to work to do a great job. However, with employees more focused on their personal wellbeing and experiences of work, it’s possible that some managers may take advantage of this, creating environments where employees go beyond quiet quitting, to being ‘pushed’ to leave.

In a world where finding talented people is becoming increasingly difficult, and employees now get to choose where, when, and with whom they would like to work, the effective management of people by their managers, has never been so important.

Interested in this topic? Read Quiet quitting is a re-balancing of influence.

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