All Quiet on the Working Front: From ‘Quiet Quitting’ to ‘Quiet’ Firing to ‘Quiet Hiring’? ©

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All Quiet on the Working Front: From ‘Quiet Quitting’ to ‘Quiet’ Firing to ‘Quiet Hiring’? ©
28
Feb

All Quiet on the Working Front: From ‘Quiet Quitting’ to ‘Quiet’ Firing to ‘Quiet Hiring’? ©

Professor Chris Rowley
Kellogg College, University of Oxford & Bayes Business School, City, University of London
Complygate, February 2023

Over the last few Covid-influenced years the media headlines about the world of work has been continually battered by a growing deluge of waves of fashionable, faddish buzz words and phrases that try to make sense and capture contemporary changes. Trying to remain afloat and buoyant by keeping up with this torrent is an on-going battle for both practitioners and workers. Thus, from 2021 we had the ‘Greats’, such as: ‘The Great Resignation’ or ‘The Great Reshuffle’. These were followed by the ‘Quiets’, such as ‘Quiet Quitting’, ‘Quiet Firing’ and now ‘Quiet Hiring’. We have even had ‘Career Cushioning’. So, what is going on in the world of work?

While many practitioners and commentators like to think the Covid-19 global pandemic is behind us, its impact and implications continue to ripple out into the work sphere via not only economic, supply chain and labour market impacts, but also both psychological and behavioural influences as well. The pandemic clearly underpinned many of the concerns driving the turmoil and high levels of turnover captured by the ‘Great Resignation' or the ‘Big Quit’. Similarly, we then had ‘Quiet Quitting’, short-hand for describing the psychological withdrawal of employees from organisations, resulting from not being fully engaged at work. Here employees do not actually leave organisations, but they no longer give their full or best efforts, let alone ‘go the extra mile’. In the past we would have seen such behaviours and practices as ‘working to rule’ or ‘not beyond contract’. However, ‘Quiet Quitting’ seems more, with falling employee work engagement. It was also in part a ‘push back’ from the ‘always on demand’ and ‘hustle’ culture that had seemingly become so prevalent in many workplaces globally. This sort of phenomenon was even seen in other countries, ranging from ‘Freeters’ in Japan, slackers’ in South Korea and the move from the ‘996’ to the ‘tang ping’ or ‘lying flat’ and ‘bai lan’ or ‘let it rot’ phenomenon in China.

However, some observers and commentators always argued that greater quitting and disengagement was only temporarily and just ‘one side of the coin’. Thus, if the economy ‘turned’ and transitioned from running hot to cold then there would be a commensurate fallout and ‘flip back’ and ‘normal service’ would be resumed. As so it seems to have come to pass and is reflected in other types of ‘Quiets’.

We soon had the use of the phrase ‘Quiet Firing’. This can be taken as an invidious form of mis-management, with neglect that aims to slowly push employees out of their jobs. It ranges from more benign tactics, such as withholding or failing to adequately provide training, coaching, support and career development to employees through to worst-case scenarios of allowing truly toxic or miserable experiences at work. A more middle ground and pervasive problem is simply ‘absent’ or ‘anaemic’ managers or those with sclerotic, bypassed and irrelevant to the modern workplace skills. Yet, this is not good leadership, productive or the ethical or right thing to do. At the very least it tarnishes business reputations as a great place to work, erodes team trust and weakens ability to keep customers happy when key employees exit.

This side of the coin also has another ‘Quiet’ face to it – ‘Quiet Hiring’. This is an attempt to ‘square the circle’ of a competitive hiring landscape with economic slowdown, pressure to keep costs down, struggle to find new talent while trying to retain top performers with in-demand skills, all made worse with staffing budgets constraints. Thus, ‘Quiet Hiring’ can involve acquiring new skills without hiring new full-time employees can take a spectrum of various forms, ranging from ‘wide’ to ‘narrow’. It includes the continuing use of non-full timers, such as contractors, agency staff to gig workers. We only have to think back to the once fashionable ‘Flexible Firm’ model with its segmented workforce acting as economic ‘shock absorbers’ to see this all laid out, including differentiating ‘numerical’ and ‘functional’ flexibilities. However, the early identifier and proponent of the ‘Quiet Quitting’ phrase, Gartner, are more explicit. For them, ‘Quiet Hiring’ usually means giving current employees more responsibilities beyond their current job description, such as moving to other positions, taking on different jobs, etc.

Some initial points need to be made about both the ‘Great’ and ‘Quiet’ phenomenon. First, these terms are ill-defined and contested in what they might mean and their newness. Of course, this opaqueness and elastic nature is exacerbated by the fact that consultants are often involved and may be peddling their wares and ‘snake oil’.

Second, they all have ‘pros and cons’ not only for businesses but also workers. For example, with ‘Quiet Hiring’ employees may face frustrations and stress and worry if they simply do not want to transition to roles that they may not be interested in or adequately trained for or let alone paid for and even worse, their performance management and evaluations may then cover this new remit.

Third, they are not universal but more prevalent in some sectors and age cohorts due to Covid-driven mistakes and lame leadership without relevant critical thinking skills. For example, ‘Quiet Hiring’ seems more likely in ‘Big Tech’ as it had dumbly doubled down, betting on Covid’s turbocharging of the ‘dash to digital’ and e commence as the only future and so resourced and building commensurately. Linked to this same pattern is the professional services sector and all those who were advising, drawn in a Gadarene rush to this illusory future. A further group are sectors such as financial services and banking who are worrying about the cold winds of looming recession.

Fourth, they are ethnocentric. They follow a well-worn path and fall into the common trap as they just simply fail to ‘look up’, understand and take into account different global contexts. These can be seen using the twin dimensions of: first, cultural e.g. the individualism-vs-collectivism of the West-vs-Asia: and second, institutional e.g. the US ‘hire and fire at will’-vs-European constraints. One example with suffice. In terms of the use and relevance of ‘Quiet Hiring’ we need to ‘go back to basics’ and note contrasting hiring regimes. First, the ‘Job description’ model, such as the US. These hiring practices are heavily reliant and dependent on job descriptions to define job requirements and identify appropriately qualified applicants. Second, in direct contrast is the ‘Membership’ model, such as Japan. Here there are no job descriptions, with the hiring of generalists to be developed to have company-wide perspectives with training and regular transfers. People are hired to join company as a whole, not necessarily for a specific position and recruited for things like intelligence, personality, character, etc rather than specific skills, experience or qualifications. Thus, ‘Junansei’ (flexibility), specifically the willingness to take on additional job opportunities as needed by the company, is ‘baked in’ from the start. So, employers may move employees to other assignments at short notice and use inter-company transfers. In passing, I cannot help but wonder if these differences might be explained in terms of being developed as ‘first line’ defence in litigious societies.

In short, changes in the world of work continue to generate interest in how to navigate and manage them. This includes retaining and motivating key performers, which in turn require effective leaders with key skills, both human and conceptual with authenticity, empathy and emotional intelligence. However, as Warren Buffett put it: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” and so in the uncertain post-pandemic world those all too often lauded as ‘great leaders’ in hagiographic homilies, turn out to be woefully equipped and without even the ‘life belt’ of skills and attributes.

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