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Beware 'Quiet Cutting' as an HR Strategy

Analysis  |  By HR Daily Advisor  
   November 29, 2023

"Quiet cutting" refers to a circumstance where companies avoid mass layoffs and instead just let positions fade into the background or make a work environment unfavorable for employees to stick around in.

This article was first published on November 29, 2023, by HR Daily Advisor, a sibling publication to HealthLeaders.

You’ve heard of “quiet quitting”—it’s when employees put in the bare minimum to meet their job requirements without ever aspiring to do more than absolutely necessary. It’s a passive-aggressive way of voicing concerns to an employer while being a drain on your company.

You’re not quitting—you’re just barely doing your job.

Whether or not “quiet quitting” is a real trend is hard to see. According to Gallup, at least 50% of the US workforce is quietly quitting, but it’s hard to measure accurately. Anecdotally, many employers say that it’s a real issue within their companies.

But should your business respond with…quiet cutting?

What Is Quiet Cutting?

“Quiet cutting” refers to a circumstance where companies avoid mass layoffs and instead just let positions fade into the background or make a work environment unfavorable for employees to stick around in. In order to avoid the public relations nightmare of letting large groups of people go at once, companies simply let roles shift, change, or go unfilled.

In other words, quiet cutting is a way of slimming down your workface without looking like you’re—well, slimming down your workforce.

What Does Quiet Cutting Look Like?

Quiet cutting can take all kinds of shapes and sizes.

It can look like:

Waiting for older employees to retire. Plenty of workers with many years of experience have discussed the feeling of being “pushed out”—they’re twiddling their thumbs while their employers pat them on the back and don’t give them any real responsibilities.

Shifting more and more responsibility to Artificial Intelligence or other technology products. While employees are capable of doing entry-level or menial tasks, software can often do them cheaper and more quickly. If a company starts shifting a lot of tasks from an actual employee to a chatbot, that can be a form of quiet cutting.

Not filling open positions. Another form of quiet cutting is the act of simply ignoring open positions. Yes, technically the position is open for applications—but if your business isn’t posting the job listing anywhere or actively recruiting for it, the position will probably fade into the background and other employees will have to pick up the slack until the position is eventually assumed to be eliminated.

Reassigning employees to unfavorable positions. Instead of having to pay a severance package and deal with the negative fallout, many companies simply make the conditions so bad that an employee quits. An easy way to do this is to reassign an employee to a position you know they won’t like. Maybe it means a different office location with a terrible commute, or a set of responsibilities that’s way beneath or above their skillset. Either way, it’s a way of saying “here’s a new situation that we know you’re not going to like—do you really want to take it, or do you just want to quit and make things easier on everybody?”

What Are the Pros and Cons of Quiet Cutting?

Businesses that practice quiet cutting are usually doing it for two reasons: to save discomfort, and to save money. They think that laying people off or firing them will be hard, and that it will make them look bad. They’re also concerned about the cost of severance packages, which might not occur if someone quits instead.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The first is that not every company actually has to pay severance, so the money you think you’re saving may not be a problem in the first place. Furthermore, quiet cutting is going to involve other employees needing to pick up the slack of the employees you’re kind-of-sort-of-letting go.

That can quickly result in burnout, leading to those employees seeking work elsewhere. The money you’ll have to pay for recruitment and onboarding of a new employee could be just as high as a severance package.

Secondly, quiet cutting results in a lot of unease among employees. People are never quite sure what’s expected of them or if they’re doing a good job.

They don’t know if they’re here to stay or if their responsibilities are going to be eliminated. It leaves them feeling anxious and concerned about their futures, and people in that state of mind aren’t going to be bringing their best to work. Their minds will be diverted from their tasks and you’ll see inner-office conflict skyrocket.

People won’t trust the HR department and will be more fearful of approaching them with any issues, leading to quitting that isn’t so quiet.

Lastly, there’s a question about if it’s the moral thing to do. If an employee is unhappy in their role and quietly quitting, you’d hope they’d make that known and have a conversation about it with you instead of immaturely draining your business of resources. Well, that idea goes both ways. If you have a problem with an employee or simply need to eliminate a role, you owe that employee the respect and courtesy of talking to them about it.

Should Your Company Embrace This Strategy?

At the end of the day, honesty is the best policy.

Is a PR fallout from a lot of layoffs hard to handle? Yes. Can some of these conversations feel sticky and uncomfortable? Absolutely. Will some of your employees be hurt, upset, or even angry? Sure thing.

But at least they’ll have been treated like humans. Because the fact of the matter is, slowly ceasing usage of something is what we do to software programs that no longer work, or appliances that are making strange noises. Not the human beings that have shown up to work for you. They deserve transparency—even the ones who are no longer a fit for your business.

People needing to be let go happens. It’s business. But you can do so in a way that’s respectful and courteous, saving your reputation in the long run and making you feel better about the contribution your company is making to society.

HR Daily Advisor is BLR’s FREE daily source of HR tips, news, and advice. HR Daily Advisor offers free webcasts, articles, and reports on topics important to HR and compensation professionals.

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