After the recent media turmoil around the phenomenon of 'quiet quitting', something new immediately rears its head: 'quiet firing'. The first concept refers to the employee. He will do just enough at work to avoid being fired. The second, 'quiet firing', is the mirror image of that occurrence, on the employer's side: the staff members he no longer appreciates are not granted anything anymore. Employees are given meaningless tasks or the least popular timetables and are no longer consulted. Or worse, they are simply 'forgotten'.
It is reminiscent of derailed, extinguished love affairs. There, too, the partners yearn for a divorce, but no one wants to take the plunge. They start arguing, bullying or ignoring each other out of frustration. As a result, the damage they cause each other (and by extension the wider circle of family and friends) is often immense.
Not infrequently, financial considerations are part of the cause of this toxic procrastination. Both in the case of quiet quitting and the extinguished love affair, there is the ‘golden cage syndrome’, which sometimes causes people to remain faithful to each other for too long. After all, people fear loss of comfort and stability. In the case of quiet firing, high dismissal costs are an important factor. By giving the employee a hard time, the employer secretly hopes that they will resign themselves.
However, fear of financial loss cannot be the only reason. The real causes of a professional relationship breakdown usually lie much deeper. We distinguish three.
- The first has to do with the failure to meet mutual expectations. For instance, the employer expected innovation and flexibility from the employee, but notices that they are becoming stagnant. Especially during a radical change process, the chances of such a psychological breach of contract are high. Research shows that employees stubbornly expect ‘the old deal’ remains respected.
- A second reason has to do with the fact that we carry a legacy of career-long allegiance. Employees are loyal and put their careers in the hands of the organization. In return, they expect the necessary care and stability. Resigning, getting fired, but also giving someone’s resignation, 'chafes' in such a culture. And if it happens at all, it is experienced as very painful.
- A third reason: we are not champions at giving and receiving feedback, neither from the employer nor from the employee side. Instead, there is a particularly high level of 'employee silence'. As a result, issues are insufficiently brought up and malfunctions can escalate. Research shows that a hardcore 9% of employees surveyed perceive themselves as outdated and obsolete: "I've always done it this way, I don't see why it should suddenly change?" So a significant group risks getting lost, but remains silent - not infrequently out of shame. Nor do others dare to name it. We cannot find the words for it, we consider it “not up to us” or we simply do not want to disturb the order of business.
Far from ideal
So resigning, giving or receiving resignations does not seem to be part of our DNA. When a psychological breach of contract occurs, we become socially awkward. I remember ‘secret parties’ from my own professional life, where collegial farewells were said to those who had just been fired, outside the hierarchy and formalities. Both the ‘stayers’ and the ‘leavers’ needed a proper farewell ritual, to cope with their grieving process.
The phenomenon of 'resignation' also makes us vulnerable. The reality is often still far from the ideal of a warm farewell, which has been worked towards openly and 'by mutual consent'. Instead, we see features of an arduous struggle, often resulting in complicated grief symptoms. This applies primarily to the employee involved - and by extension their immediate network - but HR managers also tell me how heavily a round of lay-offs can weigh on their job experience. They are usually painfully caught between a rock and a hard place and lack the framework to deal with dismissal sustainably.
So thank you to all the TikTokers and others who introduced the world to the concept duo of 'quiet quitting' and 'quiet firing'. They have given us new terminology and a reason to have an in-depth and future-oriented dialogue about the dark sides of resignation. To visualize the ideal and to dare dream of a sustainable exit strategy.
The terms put the toxicity of procrastination on display. Resignations should not be unexpected or sudden, but endlessly procrastinating also makes little sense. When the expectations of both sides no longer match, act consistently. Otherwise, we are only fooling each other, and we lose the chance of an elegant and cordial farewell.
Also, let go of the idea of lifelong loyalty once and for all and choose relative or temporary loyalty, where meaning and mutual fit are crucial. From that viewpoint, resignation will have a less painful connotation. After all, the time perspective is no longer absolute, but relative. Regularly checking in and communicating openly with each other do prove to be necessary conditions. The more robustly these qualities are ingrained in the relationship, the easier it will be to apply them in the final phase. That way, the focus is not only on the here and now, but our eyes will be trained on the future as well.
A glimpse of the future
What do both parties need to cope with the breakup in the short term and move on? For employees, that might be psychological assistance, career support or a simple 'thank you'. For employers, it might be a transfer of knowledge or an honest exit conversation. Such a discussion represents a prime learning moment for the organization. After all, employees have nothing left to fear and can be open about their grievances. And what about the long term? Inspired by schools and universities, more and more organizations are experimenting with an alumni community. The ambition is to continue the contact sustainably. In that way, out of sight no longer means out of mind.