What Is Quiet Hiring? A Good HR Practice Or A Dangerous Trend?

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Listen. Can you hear anything?

If you work in HR, the answer’s probably ‘no’, because, over the past year, the industry’s stopped talking.

The drop in volume all started with quiet quitting. Prioritizing balance over burnout, the phrase described employees’ under-the-radar bid to keep control over their workload.

Inspired/enraged/threatened (delete as applicable) by this, employers became passive-aggressive. By making the workplace unrewarding and unappealing, they tried to shift unwanted (quiet) employees from their posts. And so, quiet firing became a thing.

Now, just when you thought HR couldn’t get any more tight-lipped, quiet hiring has crept inaudibly onto the scene.

Industry pundits have presented these trends as a narrative, like this. But the truth is, these trends aren’t new. Instead, a unique set of circumstances has linked, elevated, and formalized the behaviors they represent.

Our focus here is on the last link in the chain, quiet hiring.

What is quiet hiring? Definition, examples, and alternative solutions | TalentLMS

What is quiet hiring?

Adopted most prominently by Google, quiet hiring is the recruitment strategy of pinpointing so-called “high-flyers” within an organization and rewarding them by default over other workers. Whether it’s bonuses, promotions, pay rises, or more challenging roles, in a quiet hiring world, employees who stand out by going above and beyond get more (good) attention, more money, more praise, and more opportunities.

But what is quiet hiring, really? The important majority that quiet hiring forgot

Research shows that high achievers can be 400% more productive than average employees. From a business perspective, that kind of disparity’s hard to ignore. And it explains why employers are so keen to recognize and reward this group of employees.

But the story behind quiet hiring isn’t quite so simple.

These high-performing individuals are focused and self-motivated. And they should be acknowledged for what they achieve.

But that doesn’t mean that “average” employees can be ignored. They may lack the confidence and bravado to put their heads above the parapet. But that doesn’t mean they lack the ability. With support and encouragement, most will achieve, deliver, and care more. An untapped and potentially rich resource, ignoring this quiet contingent isn’t just unfair and lazy. It’s bad for business.

And this is where the quiet hiring concept doesn’t stand up. It puts all of the responsibility for development, self-improvement, and motivation on employees themselves. And it absolves employers of any role whatsoever.

Rather than a sensible and progressive strategy, quiet hiring is actually a get-out clause. It’s also a dangerous tactic. Not only does it write off the development potential of most employees, but it also ignores the important role they play in simply: Keeping. Things. Going.

Speaking of which…

There’s another damaging side to quiet hiring. Most employees are good, reliable, and efficient workers. Happy in their role, most of them are clearly talented and interested. But rather than striving for a promotion, a new role in a different area, or public acclaim, they simply want to grow their expertise and get better at what they already do. And what does quiet hiring do for them in return? Ignore them.

Just because they’re not clamoring for attention, promotion, or more responsibilities, doesn’t mean they’re “quiet quitting.” And it certainly doesn’t mean they should be overlooked for a salary increase or any other reward attached to great performance.

They’re the (important) majority that quiet hiring forgot.


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How employees view quiet hiring

Employers who “quietly ” assess employees and promote those who go above and beyond, send a confusing message out to their workforce. They’re saying: “It’s not what you do that matters most; it’s what we (the decision-makers) see you do.”

So, rather than focusing on how to be better at their job, employees are instead thinking about how they can stand out from the crowd. Putting self-promotion over self-improvement creates a rivalry between co-workers. And we’re not talking about healthy competition.

The strategy behind quiet hiring is, in many ways, unsaid and informal, which means that the rivalry it generates is hard to regulate. The outcome? A toxic atmosphere fueled by an unspoken, but still supported sense of legitimacy.

Another issue closely linked to quiet hiring is proximity bias. As more companies choose a hybrid work model, simply coming into the office could be seen as making “more of an effort.” It’s also harder to show others how much extra effort or time you’re putting in if you’re home alone.

Add to that the fact that managers need to work harder (or rather make the effort to work “differently”) to evaluate remote employees, and home-workers are clearly at a disadvantage. It doesn’t end there, either. Quiet hiring also sidelines part-time and flexible workers whose working pattern by default implies a “lack of commitment.”

When it comes to HR strategy, employers may believe that the messages they’re sending out are positive and unambiguous. But when you add quiet hiring into the mix, those messages become confused and conflicted. Let’s look at some examples.

The language of HR in a quiet hiring organization

 

What employers say: What employees hear:
We support remote, hybrid, and flexible working. Of course, you can choose to work from home, but it’s better for your career if you don’t.
We value expertise. Having in-depth specialist knowledge won’t get you noticed. Taking on extra, unrelated duties will.
We value wellbeing and work-life balance. The more time you spend working, the more loyal we think you are.
Our reward and recognition policy is fair and transparent. Only employees who we see stand out from the crowd will get nominated for promotions and bonuses.

 

It’s easy to see from these examples how damaging quiet hiring can be.

Yes, those subliminal messages may resonate with and motivate a select few high flyers. But for most good and “could do better” employees, they’ll have the opposite effect.

The truth is, quiet hiring doesn’t motivate and reward all employees equally. And because of this, businesses will end up with pockets of high performance and productivity, but overall a largely toxic, disengaged, and disparate workforce.

The not-so-alternative solution: Give values a voice again

Like the other “quiet” trends we referenced at the start, the behaviors associated with quiet hiring aren’t new. There have always been self-motivated, self-promoters, and unconfident underachievers in the workplace, just as there have always been employees who are conscientious and capable but determinedly unambitious.

What is new is that quiet hiring has taken these personas, and presented them as a strategy using a buzzword. Personality determines success is what quiet hiring implies. And it’s this attitude that’s so dangerous.

Successful organizations need diversity to succeed. And this comes from having a rich and varied talent pool consisting of different personality types and people with different skills and qualifications. And it’s the job of HR to value and develop each employee in the best way possible. Not, as quiet hiring suggests, to sit back and wait for the big personalities to push themselves to the front. And then ignore the rest.

Left unchecked, quiet hiring will slowly (and silently) destroy HR best practices, employee experience, and standards of communication.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, it’s what HR and recruitment have always been about: openness, honesty, inclusivity, balance, and respect. In short, forget quiet hiring and remember, instead, that if you show all employees that they’re valued, they’ll add value in return. And keep talking—it’s time HR found its voice again.

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