Quiet Termination: What’s Next for HR after Quiet Quitting

Posted by Gary Toyn on Feb. 28, 2023


  • The labor shortage has emboldened employees to push back against some long-standing workplace practices, such as working late without compensation.
  • Quiet quitting is defined as setting reasonable boundaries between work life and personal life.
  • Quiet Termination is when managers use their collective power to coerce an otherwise productive employee to resign.
  • Quiet terminations often reflect a manager’s lack of skills to lead, advise, and coach their employees.

About a 7 min. read


The Labor Shortage has Emboldened Workers

As the labor shortage persists, employees are becoming increasingly emboldened and pushing back against employer practices that have disadvantaged them for years. This newfound sense of power has given rise to a social media trend called "quiet quitting."

Employees are also pushing back against another phenomenon known as “quiet termination.” More about that in a minute.


Conflicting Definitions of Quiet Quitting

The quiet quitting trend started with TikTok user @zkchillin. His brief 17-second video talks about “not going above and beyond” at work. The video has exploded in popularity with millions of views. But more important, it has hatched an essential online conversation about work-life balance, employee-employer relations, personal work ethic, and the “hustle culture.”

The name “quiet quitting” is frankly a lousy name for what it really represents. NBC news produced this segment defining it as “not bending over backward for their employer…and sacrificing their mental and physical health.”

AdobeStock_306016350 - boss not allow go home [Converted] LOW-01Quiet quitting is not about actually quitting or resigning from employment. And most people also don’t accept the definition of quiet quitters being on-the-job slackers. As this source defines it “Quiet quitting is the reasonable retreat from the round-the-clock hustle culture.”

Quiet quitting is not about justifying a poor work ethic, but it IS about exercising that executive skill of being able to prioritize your time. It’s about working hard during work hours, and doing what you want during your non-work hours. It’s about setting reasonable boundaries between your employer and your family/personal life.


Business Owners Don't Like Quiet Quitters

Many people are itching to co-opt the term to serve their own purposes. They claim quiet quitters are lazy, apathetic slackers. This business consultant claims that quiet quitting involves “declining or not attending meetings; arriving late or leaving early,” and “a reduction in productivity.” In other words, being an on-the-job slacker. 

Kevin O’Leary, business owner and star of ABC’s “Shark Tank” spoke out against quiet quitters in a television interview on CNBC, saying it was “the dumbest thing I've ever heard.” He said people will succeed in business only when they “go beyond to try to solve problems for the organization. If you try to define your work ethos by some (time) definition of your job, then you’re going to fail. (Quiet quitters are) people who shut down their laptop at five (and) want that balance in life. (They) want to go to the soccer game. (Work) nine to five only. They don’t work for me. I hope they work for my competitors.”

By implication, O’Leary is saying that someone who consistently shuts down their laptop at five is somehow cheating the company. They’re lazy, selfish, and otherwise undesirable employees. And if you’re NOT willing to work for his company without regard to quitting time, he wants nothing to do with you.

I think Mr. O’Leary is dead wrong.

All employees have an obligation to give an employer their full focus, energy, and effort during the working hours they are being paid for. However, an employer doesn’t have the right to demand that you work beyond the hours they are willing to pay you. But that’s exactly what O’Leary is arguing for. A good employee to him is one who’s willing to work for some hours for free.

Let’s be clear. I’m not criticizing employees who choose to work late, nor do I disapprove of employers who occasionally require employees to work after hours. I do have an issue with employers who threaten an employee’s job if they don’t work without fair compensation. And I have a real problem with business cultures that frequently shame employees who set reasonable boundaries between their home life and work life.

Research Supports Quiet Quitting

I base my opinion on research conducted earlier this year looking into what causes stress among HR professionals. One of the elements of the study looks into the effects of habitually working past quitting time.

The study found that when compared to HR professionals who go home on time, those who habitually stay late are:

  • 116 percent more likely to have a bad relationship with the company’s senior executives.
  • 114 percent more likely to say their company has a negative work culture.
  • 81 percent more likely to have “too many emotionally charged confrontations at work.”
  • 70 percent more likely to feel dissatisfied with the work they do.
  • 54 percent more likely to report they work in a toxic environment. 

Employees Flexing Their Collective Muscle

AdobeStock_81654545 - employee muscles LOWEmployees are saying “enough is enough.” They’re rejecting the hustle culture fostered by the Kevin O’Leary’s of the world, and his aggressive leadership style that has spurred the quiet quitting phenomenon in the first place.

Employers are not accustomed to having employees push back. Many employers want the unfettered ability to push employees to the breaking point, without regard to an employee’s mental health and long-term productivity. And they especially don’t care if they foster a toxic work culture in order to achieve their company’s objectives.

That’s why so many are talking about quiet quitting. Employees are tired of spending their productive years working in a toxic environment. They’re tired of working for an employer where they’re likely to have frequent emotionally charged confrontations.

Can you blame workers for pushing back? Can you blame workers who embrace quiet quitting?

I can’t blame them. And according to this Gallup poll, at least 50 percent of the U.S. workforce agrees with me.

From Quiet Quitting to Quiet Termination

I suspect that it won’t be long before the term “quiet quitting” will go the route of many viral social media terms, but the phenomenon itself won’t be going away any time soon. Work-life balance, or whatever we’ll call it in ten years, will always be a priority for workers with children, families, or aging parents. And it behooves employers to help employees maintain this delicate balance.

Quiet quitting is just one way employees are using their collective strength to demand better working conditions. Another practice they’re pushing back against is called quiet termination.

What is “Quiet Termination?” or Quiet Firing? (Or as my British friends may call it “Quiet Sacking.”)

In a nutshell, quiet termination is when managers use passive-aggressive or subtle tactics to “persuade” an unliked employee to quit, even though they have no justifiable reason to fire them.

To be clear, we’re not talking about terminating an underperforming employee. I’m talking about a company using its collective power and authority to coerce an otherwise productive employee to resign.

As HR professionals, it’s important to be mindful of departments with high turnover. While high turnover itself is not necessarily the fault of the manager, be on the lookout for managers with higher-than-average turnover because they are quietly terminating one or more of their employees.

What would prompt a manager to quietly terminate an employee?

AdobeStock_256605146 - bad boss saying no LOWSome want to replace an employee with one that they think will do a better job. Sometimes it’s just a personality conflict, despite the employee being qualified. Other times, it’s discriminatory, such as wanting to replace a higher-salaried employee with a younger, lower-paid employee.

With the war on talent raging on, employers are often faced with the necessity of promoting less qualified employees to management positions. This can result in new managers quietly terminating an employee because they lack the skills or motivation to lead, advise, or coach these employees.

It's not always easy to spot quiet terminations but be on the lookout for managers who single out an unliked employee with behaviors such as: 

  1. Openly praise most employees but ignore or exclude others.
  2. Use subtle digs or sarcasm when an employee asks for help.
  3. Give an employee little to no feedback on their projects.
  4. Openly criticize an employee in front of their peers.
  5. Micromanage an employee’s tasks.
  6. Add to the bureaucracy of an employee by adding extra steps to their processes.
  7. Give an employee a minimal or no raise, while others receive a bigger raise.
  8. Restrict the flow of critical information to further disadvantage an employee.
  9. Exclude an employee from a fun or challenging project.
  10. Cancel, re-schedule, or otherwise limit 1-on-1 opportunities with an employee.
  11. Avoid or limit other mentoring opportunities for an employee.
  12. Restrict conferences or professional training opportunities for an employee.
  13. Give the most mundane and repetitive tasks to an employee.
  14. Give an employee more work than they can reasonably accomplish.
  15. Create a developmental plan that is unrealistically challenging, or otherwise too simple.
  16. Deny time-off requests to an employee, but show leniency to others.
  17. Instead of saying “no,” managers say “not now,” dangling promises in front of an employee they don’t intend to fulfill. 

Why Quiet Termination is Bad for Business

AdobeStock_55746875 - bad for business LOWQuiet termination is not only harmful to the employee being targeted but also bad for business.

It's especially detrimental if the employee is qualified and the company has invested significant time and resources in training them. Is it wise to throw away that investment simply due to a personality conflict with a manager? This type of termination doesn't occur in isolation, and other employees are likely to notice, leading to lower engagement, morale, teamwork, and productivity.

From a personnel perspective, quiet termination doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and other employees are sure to notice, then wonder if they’re going to be next. That negative impact on productivity always comes at a cost in terms of lower employee engagement, morale, teamwork, and productivity. It can also embolden whistleblowers to speak out against your company.

Let’s also talk about the damaging impact on your company’s reputation. If your managers have a reputation for being jerks, Glassdoor and other job sites will make darn sure the word gets around. 

In some cases, quiet termination not only leads to losing a good employee, but can also lead to ongoing legal issues, especially if the manager’s behavior rises to the level of a “constructive discharge.”


Quiet Termination vs. Constructive Discharge

“Constructive discharge” is a legal term describing an employer’s unlawful termination of an employee, where working conditions were permitted to become so unbearable that it forces an employee to voluntarily quit.

The requirements of a constructive discharge differ from state to state, but in a general sense, the employer’s actions must reach the level of hostility that is viewed as unbearable by an unbiased individual. Constructive discharge also is usually tied to some form of unlawful discrimination, thereby creating an intolerable working condition that forces the employee to resign.

Admittedly, the legal standard for an ex-employee to prove a constructive discharge case can be difficult. One of the biggest challenges they have is gathering proof, especially after they’ve left the company. But some employees have been successful in their claims by seeking legal counsel while they’re still employed. In such cases, they were advised on how to obtain the necessary proof they would need to convince a court that the work environment was so intolerable that any reasonable individual would have resigned given the circumstances.” From an HR perspective, your life will be better if you don’t have to defend a constructive discharge claim.


Identifying a Poorly Performing Manager

In our next article, HR professional Lisa Oyler will delve into the 15 surefire ways to spot a bad manager. As HR professionals, it's crucial to identify negative behaviors in managers, ranging from micromanagers to bullies. A manager who fosters a toxic work environment or practices quiet termination can severely impact employee morale, engagement, and productivity. By spotting warning signs, we can address these issues before they escalate.


What’s your take on this?

We'd love to hear from you!

Share your thoughts on quiet quitting and quiet termination. Do you agree with our definition of these phenomena? Is quiet termination ever justifiable? Have you encountered a manager who has used passive-aggressive tactics to make an employee quit? Do your employees have the power to push back against unfavorable practices at your workplace? Leave your insights and experiences in the comments below. We value your perspective!


Topics: HR, employee retention, Employee Engagement + Loyalty, HR Stress

Gary Toyn

Written by Gary Toyn

For 25+ years Gary Toyn has helped organizations large and small improve their constituent/member acquisition, retention and engagement. He's a multi-published author, writer, and researcher.