‘Quiet firing’ layoffs risk fomenting a toxic environment


So far this year, companies have laid off just under 100,000 employees, according to layoffs.fyi, which emphasizes losses at tech companies. Job cuts totaled more than 260,000 in 2023, so, while the trend appears to be down a little for 2024, layoffs continue. (For another up-to-date list of tech-specific layoffs, see TechCrunch.)

What’s changed since February, when I wrote about the economics of job cuts, is that some companies are using new tactics to avoid negative publicity, lawsuits, and paying out potentially costly layoff benefits:

  • Silent layoffs occur when a company offers severance on condition that the employee keep quiet about the details of his or her exit.
  • Quiet firing is when bosses intentionally or unintentionally make a role less appealing, thereby provoking workers to quit instead of forcing them out via layoffs that might entail severance packages.
  • Return to office mandates (RTO); many believe stringent RTO mandates are a form of quiet firing. They also duck the cost of severance benefits.

Silent layoffs

Silent layoffs (a.k.a. quiet layoffs) have been in the news lately. PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) is widely reported to have launched a round of silent layoffs in the UK last month. According to the Financial Times, “the affected staff [members were] told they must not inform colleagues why they are leaving and they should follow a ‘suggested wording’ if they want to send goodbye messages.” The move backfired on the Big Four accountancy firm. Any semblance of silence was lost to the negative publicity, which is worse than it would have been had PwC simply announced the layoffs publicly and taken its lumps.

In early 2023, silent layoffs became unlawful in the US when the National Labor Relations Board overturned a 2020 ruling that allowed employers to use confidentiality and non-disparagement language in their severance agreements. The move reinstates rights afforded by the National Labor Relations Act (1935) and blocks the use of nondisclosure and other agreements that seek to prevent employees from speaking out about the terms of their severance and unfair practices of employers.

Quiet firing

The prevalence of bosses subtly pressuring employees to quit their jobs, or “quiet firing” (also. known as quiet cutting) in the US is partly the result of the National Labor Relations Board’s 2023 action. There’s a catch for employees, too; the ruling disincentivizes companies to pay severance, and even if they do, employee resignation obviates any possible severance benefits. 

That companies resort to this toxic method of job cutting is especially cruel because it stresses out employees both professionally and financially. The flagrant disregard for employees’ well being in the name of avoiding bad publicity is a harsh reality. The fallout for companies using this tactic could be consequential.

Return-to-office mandates and quiet firing

recent study from BambooHR (of just over 1,500 US full-time salaried employees) shows that 25% of top-level execs and C-suite respondents — and 18% of HR pros — admit they hoped for a voluntary employee exodus as a result of RTO mandates. Some 37% of managers, directors and executives said they enacted layoffs during the past year because their RTO mandate pushed fewer people to quit than expected. Nearly half of respondents who have experienced an RTO order report significant talent loss from the best and brightest in their organizations.

The report concludes that the current level of employee “dissatisfaction could lead to a further drain of talent, affecting not just morale but also stability and the [potential for innovation].”

What to do if you think you’re being quietly fired

If you suspect you might be a victim of quiet firing, Forbes details eight indicators that you’re being quietly let go. And Harvard Business Review lists 18 early warning signs, including not providing employee bonuses, reassigning important job responsibilities, and setting up unreasonable performance targets. Confidentially finding others at your company who believe they’re in the same boat can help validate your experience.

If you conclude that you’re likely in a quiet firing situation, accusations of “quiet firing” likely won’t be constructive. Talking to your boss dispassionately about suggested changes to address the issues you’ve noticed is a good first step. Be transparent and if the conversation goes well, wait for a while to see whether it bears fruit.

If it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself whether the company culture and opportunities for growth and advancement are worth the continued effort. Your remaining options may be limited. You can seek out other employees who may be able to advocate for you, suggests this Time article. Or speak to your manager’s boss about your role going forward.

At some point, you might want to put your energy into initiating a job search. Use the time you have to take positive steps while you’re able to deal with it. Your mental health and positive outlook are important to making this transition. Keep in mind that this experience does not reflect poorly on you.

When you reach the end of your rope, try negotiating with your company. Tell them you believe that you’re being induced to quit and ask them for severance, health insurance benefits, time while on salary to job hunt. It can’t hurt to ask. You might also want to get legal help with reviewing any negotiated outcome. 

It’s a sorry state of affairs when companies get caught up in using underhanded tactics to lay off employees. It’s a sign of a weak company that’s being managed poorly. Strong companies are transparent and above board with employees. If you wind up job hunting, look for a company that has the reputation of treating its employees fairly and honestly.

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