When 2022 hit us with the buzz-phrase ‘quiet quitting’ (ie when staff literally do the bare minimum – what most HR professionals have long regarded as simply ‘disengagement’); it seemed to spurn a whole ‘quiet’ industry.
Since then, we’ve had everything from ‘quiet firing’ (a deliberate form of HR neglect, leaving unproductive staff so unsupported they resort to quitting of their own accord rather than HR having to actually fire them); to ‘quiet constraint’ (when staff deliberately withhold valuable knowledge they could share with colleagues), and a whole bunch more.
Whatever your views about these shorthand labels to describe the world of work (Vox.com recently decried how commentators have created an “endless quest to make up words about work”), it’s hard to deny they have some sort of stickiness.
More than this, they also (on occasion) neatly sum up a behavior HR ought to be aware off.
And the latest ‘quiet’ on the block is yet another attempt to do just this – the existing of so-called ‘quiet cutting’.
This phrase could have more legs as a topic HR ought to be discussing.
Well, first off, ‘quiet cutting’ describes a process HR does – not staff.
It refers to employers ‘reassigning’ people’s duties – when staff are stripped of the current role/responsibilities they were initially hired for, but not their job.
In old money this might have been called demotion, but according to a report last month by The Wall Street Journal, not only is it a phenomenon that is already on the rise, but it’s one that could be characterizing workplaces up and down the country in the next six-to-12 months, as companies simultaneously restructure, but also try to avoid actual job losses.
Adidas, Abobe, IMB and Salesforce have recently reassigned employees as part of corporate restructurings.
Reports suggest they’ve done it because they’ve hired top talent that they need to somehow try to keep.
But because these same companies are also having to slash costs and restructure, they’re putting people into a hold of ‘holding pen’ until better times return.
Quiet cutting – it’s on the rise:
In the US, mentions of the term “reassignment” more than tripled during company earnings calls between August 2022 and September 2023.
The dangers of quiet cutting:
Recent SHRM data found low-resilience employees were three times more likely to think about quitting every week than employees who feel safer in their roles.
But quiet cutting is a tactic that is fraught with risk – because, well, are these reassigned talent really going to stay when their roles have been reduced?
Commentators suggest quiet cutting is simply delaying the inevitable.
And, aside from the demotivating impact on staff themselves companies practicing quiet cutting are already being criticized.
Firstly, organizations are being accused of masking what would otherwise be official ‘layoffs’.
In doing do, they’re also being accused of avoiding costly severance payments that a real layoff would involve.
So is quiet cutting a pernicious trend that will continue to drive a trust wedge between HR and employees? Or, should it be looked on more favorably – as HR actually trying to do their best to keep people on when they could simply let them go?
To debate some of these questions, TLNT spoke exclusively to Vanessa Gennarelli, principal at leadership and culture consultancy, Fortuna.ink.
She’s just released her latest book – Surviving Change at Work – so we thought she’d be the perfect person to talk to:
Q: What’s ‘quiet cutting’ as you see it?
A: “Folks are getting reassigned to new roles in the face of changing conditions.
Q: And what’s the rap for HR in all of this?
A: “In situations like this, you sort of have to empathize with HR, because they’re the ones who are getting hit hard, by being tasked to try and deal with pressures in the business that they’re not fully in control of.”
Q: Isn’t quiet cutting simply just the inevitable consequence of companies going through huge periods of change, and employers having to work out how this impacts their people?
A: “Yes, but I do think there is a very real need to manage employees expectations here. Quiet cutting can have certain (not great) connotations, because in doing it, you’re dealing with how a person feels. The issue for leaders here is whether there is an ability for them to get people to buy into this change. Change is generally dealt with OK when people ‘get’ why it’s happening. But leaders still forget to think this, and still forget to communicate the reasons why they’re making change. Most (70%) of change projects fail, but that’s because all change is painful, but often change is not properly explained.”
Q: Are their particular dangers bout getting quiet cutting wrong?
A: “People can react to quiet cutting in a number of unwanted ways – maybe it took them by surprise (not good); maybe it leads to a loss of identity; or maybe it creates loss of face amongst their colleagues. It can be embarrassing to be moved to a ‘lower’ job. Managers/HR managers are ultimately there to transfer the goals of the company, and do it do everyone is on board. So if quiet cutting is going to be a strategy that’s going to be followed, HR/managers need to be equipped to convey these messages better.”
Q: What can leaders do then?
A: “When leaders properly assess which variable they are trying to move, that’s a lot of the communications work done for them to start with. Being clear on the how and why change is happening is essential. People may not be happy about being quietly cut, but at least they’ll have the context for this if they are shown the bigger picture. HR needs to demonstrate the benefit of the different space staff can occupy in the business. Staff also need to know that any sacrifice they make will be worth it in the end. Sometimes HR can be hesitant of pursuing this type of message because they fear they’re being too frank with people. But the simplest thing to do is say staff are being reassigned because of ‘X’. Giving staff the ability to reframe things in their own minds is better than leaving them in the dark. HR can under-estimate the power of really spelling things out, and spelling out the forces at play. This can really help minimize feelings of inadequacy.”
Q: Does the explanation really make staff feel more empowered?
A: “To me, telling staff what’s what, and explaining that they can either choose to accept it, or take another path (ie resign), helps give staff autonomy. Now they can take autonomy for their career. It’s worth remembering, that when we talk about change, it’s often a bucket-term, with lots of other things in it. The way it has to be presented, however, is very specific: that’s there’s going to be a new way of doing things if we are all going to survive. Sometimes companies do need to do things ‘big’ to get big change to happen.
Q: Does the fallout from quiet cutting simply prove that companies have failed to prepare staff for change?
A: “It could well be. Google famously used to hire people by telling them that they should prepare for the fact that the job they’re being recruited for right now probably won’t exist in the next three-five years. People joined knowing that. While I’m not saying everyone should have been hired this way, I do think that in 2023, the ability to deal with change will be the most important skillset employees can bring to organizations. The problem however, is that change management often fall to HR as a competency to build, but HR professionals may not always be able to give it the attention it deserves. HR has to equip people for change.”