For Arzan Pawar, a 23-year-old chef based in Mumbai, the prospect of working at one of India’s finest luxury hotels meant many things – he could introduce his cherished family recipe of traditional Parsi scrambled eggs in the hotel’s extensive breakfast spread, the odd contrast of calm and chaos in the high stakes kitchen would probably take the edge off his anxiety, and the joy of feeding people on a large scale would be second to none.
Until his supervisor, the front office manager, ruined his hopes for a safe and thriving workplace with his blatant homophobia. “He would openly tell me that I was very feminine and that it didn’t look very professional,” Pawar told VICE. “He made a video of me walking and showed it to the whole department and asked them how wrong it was for me to walk the way I do.”
A few months later, when his probation period was about to end, the manager sarcastically asked Pawar if he was open to full-time employment at the property, knowing full well that Pawar would decline this opportunity after all the toxicity he’d been subjected to. “When I said no, that bastard was smiling and was like, ‘but you’re doing so well?’ and ‘everyone loves you.’”
Pawar’s situation is a classic case of “quiet firing.” Although there is no universally accepted definition of quiet firing, it is broadly understood to describe cases where an employer creates such toxic and often downright torturous conditions for the employee that they are forced to quit on their own. It’s kinda like how garbage landlords, who legally can’t evict good rent-paying tenants, make the property so unlivable that the tenants choose to move out themselves.
Managers might be quiet firing for various reasons – probably because they don’t have the spine or the language to have constructive discussions with their team, or, to avoid the high costs of litigation that firing someone might invite, or just not to set off alarms within the company.
It’s not like this is a new phenomenon either. But it’s probably encapsulated the experience of many into a term that’s picked traction in the past couple of months. According to a LinkedIn News poll conducted last month, out of the 20,000 respondents, 35 percent said that quiet firing is “real” and they have faced it, while 48 percent of respondents said that they have “seen it at work before.”
The poll further clarified that even though there’s no one definition for what it means for an employer to quietly fire an employee, examples include not providing a raise or promotion for years, shifting an employee’s responsibilities toward tasks that require less experience or are less appealing, and the deliberate withholding of development and leadership opportunities. Quiet firing can also appear in other forms – demoralising a team member, leaving them out of important meetings and discussions, avoiding communication with them, and openly disfavouring them or favouring others over them.
Clinical psychologist Anjali Gowda Ferguson told VICE that even though quiet firing has been gaining recent traction, various behaviours under the term have existed for some time. She said that the practice itself is harmful to employees not just because of the financial implications of being forced out of one’s job, but also the toll that it takes on one’s mental health.
“Organisations may refuse [employee requests for] leave, increase workloads without increasing wages, refuse to address workplace conflicts, provide poor performance reviews without support, deny breaks during the workday, have accessibility concerns, require work outside of [working hours] or need constant access to the employee,” she said. “They may also engage in performative practices regarding discrimination policies, but target individuals who speak out against workplace discrimination and conflict.”
Workplace conflicts riddled with unrealistic deadlines and shady ethics were also the reason why Aishwaria – a 28-year-old journalist based in Delhi who prefers to be known by only her first name – quit her job at a popular English news channel she joined in October 2018.
“They would get angry [with employees] for staying sick for too long, or taking more offs to grieve a family member's death, basically for using one’s own leaves at one’s convenience,” she said. “Screaming matches were common and we would get yelled at for the tiniest of errors.” Additionally, the employees were all expected to work for at least 10 hours every day, even on slow news days.
“I remember my leave was cancelled once, and I was urgently called back for a very important interview during the election period. Apparently, a senior political leader had misspokes, so our access to the live feed was restricted [so that no one saw it and his blunder could be quickly edited out at the backend], probably for the leader. Obviously, there was no acknowledgement that I had reached work late at night, as I had been travelling from another city, but on top of that I was yelled at by my boss for trying to access the feed.”
Aishwaria could not stay on at this job beyond two years. It helped that her boss, who she describes as “the real Satan,” was on maternity leave. “Some seniors tried to retain me, but the norm was to get mad at the person who chose to quit.”
Considering the vague and often indirect nature of quiet firing, can labour laws come to the rescue? Anju Singh, an assistant professor of labour and environmental law at the Pravin Gandhi College of Law in Mumbai, said that Indian labour laws are applicable only to people who qualify as “workmen” and “employees.”
“In India, currently, there is no specific law dealing with quiet firing as our labour codes are still getting implemented, but it can be taken up by the employee under various laws prohibiting unfair labour practice by the employer,” she explained. “If taken up by the trade union [if the employee is registered under one], such behaviour can be prevented, as the matter can turn into an industrial dispute.”
Many employers who face quiet firing are unable to sue their former bosses because technically, they were never “employees” in the first place. Their contracts might’ve referred to them as “contractors” or “consultants,” which does not attract remedy under stringent provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act or Unfair Trade Practices Act.
However, can quiet firing be the outcome of helplessness on the manager’s part rather than them being portrayed as a soulless monster in such work-related stories? Bhaumik Gowande, a 29-year-old consultant, think this needs a more balanced outlook.
“When it comes to consultancy firms, firing someone is not easy as you have to make a solid case about why someone was fired, “he said.“You have to demonstrate that you tried giving the employee in question numerous chances, changed their job descriptions, assigned them a different project, and so on.”
Gowande recounts the case of an employee who was hired by his consultancy firm solely because of his connections in the industry but soon stressed everyone else out. “He didn’t know even the basics of drawing up a proposal, or how to involve stakeholders. He couldn’t even operate the basic Microsoft suite. He would take two months to get back on a project that should take two weeks. We tried giving him different projects and even tried saving him for four months but nothing worked out. But after a point, we gave up and wanted him to leave. Our manager couldn’t fire him because of his connections but they did try to make his life uncomfortable because he was being paid handsomely to do nothing and at the cost of other people’s time and work-life balance. I was supposed to build a case against him but he quit on his own soon after.”
However, the skewed power dynamics in workplace settings mean that the onus is on the manager usually. In the case of Arjun Randhawa, a 22-year-old writer based in Delhi, the quiet firing came with a side of racism.
Randhawa was working with a writer’s collective based across multiple countries, but reporting to editors who were American. “Initially, I could set my own deadlines and be paid accordingly,” he said. “However, the set-up was incredibly isolating. I was completely neglected because they would come up with strategies and edits on their own. I was being poorly treated compared to my American counterparts, even though we were doing the same work.”
He said that the way the company had structured its outsourcing was clearly beneficial to Americans only. There was no HR, no employee engagement, and Indians were getting paid not only below the minimum wage in the U.S. ($7.25 per hour), but also below the minimum wage in India ($2.40 per day). The isolation and absolute lack of engagement with his concerns by his employers reached a point where Randhawa got burnt out and quit the company in three months. He tried having a word with his employeers but his concerns would either be downplayed or he was accused of imagining things.
“There could be logistical reasons for why a boss might opt for quiet firing in the first place – avoiding paying a severance package or clearing the path for their favoured candidate,” said Jasleen Kaur Sachdev, a Mumbai-based psychologist “On a psychological level, this is a case of a lack of emotional regulation where the bosses are frustrated with the work being done and don’t know how to address conflicts or communicate feedback, or how to resolve the situation in a healthy way. So, they might not acknowledge their emotions and quiet firing [is one way] they deal with it.”
But should one confront bosses who are choosing quiet firing as a strategy to get employees to quit, particularly in cases where quitting is not an option due to financial and personal reasons? Clinical psychologist Ferguson said that this can be incredibly challenging because workplace stressors can become lifelong traumas that impact our health and well-being over time.
“If you are unable to leave your job, find ways to build in mental health breaks during your day or after work,” she said. “Find allies in your organisation and include after-work activities like happy hours or coffee breaks to build solidarity and support. Chances are others may also be experiencing similar challenges and can validate and reinforce your experience.”