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After ‘quiet quitting,’ here comes ‘quiet firing’

Some employers avoid providing all but the bare legal minimum to their workers in the hope they will take the hint and quit

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There’s been a great hue and cry lately over “quiet quitting”— also known as “working to rule,” “lying flat,” or otherwise declining to go above and beyond what you are paid to do in your job. Quiet quitting looks to many like a reasonable retreat from the round-the-clock hustle culture. But to others, quiet quitting represents disengaged employees sandbagging and shirking all but the minimum effort, not expecting — or not caring — that their employers might fire them for it.

'Quiet quitting' isn't really about quitting. Here are the signs.

But if we’re going to accuse workers of quiet quitting, we should also acknowledge the phenomenon of “quiet firing,” in which employers avoid providing all but the bare legal minimum, possibly with the aim of getting unwanted employees to quit.

They may deny raises for years, fail to supply resources while piling on demands, give feedback designed to frustrate and confuse, or grant privileges to select workers based on vague, inconsistent performance standards. Those who don’t like it are welcome to leave.

The “work from anywhere” business model offers opportunities for both quiet quitting and quiet firing. Some remote workers, as I discussed recently, are moving out of commuting distance for personal reasons. And some employers are reducing and relocating their office spaces for business reasons. When employers or employees make these changes without due regard for the disruption it causes the other party, it starts to look like they’re daring one another to end the work relationship.

Questions from a couple of readers lead me to ask: What, if anything, do relocating companies owe their workers? Is the attrition of workers who can’t adapt just another form of quiet firing?

With Labor Day RTO deadlines, bosses really mean it. Probably.

Reader 1: My employer is requiring us to return to the office at least three days a week, but during the pandemic they moved the office to a new location that isn’t on any public transit routes, which means I’ll have to drive in. It’s a nasty commute across the bay (I used to take a ferry, but now I’d have to walk several miles from there to get to the new office). The response has essentially been “tough luck, kiddo,” but those who left the area are allowed to continue to work fully remotely.

I wonder if I have any recourse, short of quitting. I’m nearing retirement, so I also wonder if they’re hoping I’ll take the hint.

Karla: If your employer managed with you working remotely for the better part of the past two years, and others are still working remotely full-time, it’s unclear why they suddenly need you in the new space for three-fifths of the week, or at all. If you’ve brought up this issue with management, and they’re making no effort to offset the hardship or adjust the demands, that certainly suggests they’re not concerned about losing you.

You could call their bluff and continue working exclusively from home — but that might give them an excuse to fire you.

If they’re refusing any concessions with the goal of nudging you into early retirement, that could well be illegal but hard to prove. If you can somehow show that employees of a particular age, race or nationality are disproportionately being denied flexibility or suffering hardships because of this move, you might have leverage in requesting some leeway on the return-to-office requirement. An employment lawyer could help write a letter to persuade your HR team that flexibility is the best policy.

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Reader 2: I was hired last year by a firm that had one office 20 minutes from my home and another in a city over an hour away. I worked remotely during the pandemic and was told that upon reopening I could decide which office I would work from. Naturally I had in mind the local office.

The firm recently sold the local office building, leaving only the city location. I have the option to continue working from home most of the time, but it’s been rough on my mental health — I really need to get out of the house. Would I be eligible for unemployment if I quit to start looking for other local jobs?

Karla: Depending on your state, you might qualify for unemployment benefits if you’re fleeing work conditions so hostile or unsafe that they essentially forced you out (also known as “constructive discharge”). But I wouldn’t quit until you have a more solid source of income — i.e., another job — in hand.

However, assuming your employer isn’t trying to quiet-fire you, a third option may be available. Flexible workspaces ranging from dedicated desks to entire office floors are increasingly available for rent and not necessarily cost-prohibitive, especially when compared with the tolls of an hour-plus commute. And they offer more privacy and reliable WiFi than your local coffee shop.

Navigating the return to the office

Maybe other colleagues in your area would be willing to join you. Best case, your employer might be persuaded to subsidize office-rental memberships in lieu of public transit or parking expenses.

With all the possibilities remote work has opened up, employers and employees can be creative in finding solutions that don’t involve silently sabotaging each other.

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