Have you heard of ‘quiet cutting’? Discover why it's stirring headlines

Organisational Change
Paul Slezak

My flight home had boarded on time, the cabin crew had run through their pre-flight safety demonstration, and the pilot had said we were just waiting for clearance to push back and we’d be on our way momentarily.

I’d had a great break away and I was feeling re-charged and ready for the year ahead.

Homeward bound.

Another announcement: “Cabin crew disarm all doors and cross check”.

“I knew it was too good be true”, said the woman sitting next to me. “Everything was going far too smoothly”.  

I wasn’t sure if she was letting out her frustration or talking to me. She was right, though. Disarming the doors is what typically happens once the plane has landed and is approaching the gate. Besides, they had already armed the doors 10 minutes ago in preparation for our departure.

A few moments later, the pilot announced that the jet bridge was stuck and until it could be retracted, unfortunately we weren’t going anywhere.

Hearing the combined groans from nearly two hundred passengers was actually quite amusing.

“Maybe it’s a sign”, 11B said, now clearly wanting to get my attention. “I didn’t even really want to go back to work anyway”.

Even though the actual flight was only meant to take a little over an hour, we ended up sitting on the tarmac for close to two hours before the jet bridge was finally repaired. And it didn’t take too long for me to learn exactly why my new friend didn’t want to go back to work.

She held her iPad up so close to my face that even without my glasses on I could clearly read the headline of the article she was reading. “So much for a soft landing: Nearly 40% of companies are still expecting layoffs in 2024”.

“I always prefer a soft landing to a bumpy landing”, I said … trying to keep the conversation light-hearted (and on theme give we were sitting in a plane) and trying my best to avoid any work talk.

“It would be so much easier to be part of the 40% if they’d only agreed to traditional layoffs”, she continued. “But, of course, my genius decision makers had to choose to get on the ‘quiet cutting’ bandwagon instead. So now I’m in for a bumpy ride for sure”.

She must have noticed my reaction to the term, ‘quiet cutting’.

I was curious so I asked her what she meant.

At first I thought she may have chosen to dismiss me as being far to ignorant to continue with any form of conversation, since she looked away and started typing something into her iPad. But then she held it back up in my face, this time giving me just enough time to read the headline of another article, “Why employers are ‘quiet cutting’ employees” and a chance to quickly scan the first few paragraphs before she put it back down in her lap with a loud ‘humph’-type sigh.

I had managed to ascertain that ‘quiet cutting’ has apparently become quite a trendy term for downgrading roles, responsibilities, and compensation.

Quiet cutting is a tactic that companies use to cut costs in order to avoid layoffs.

“I hate it”, she said. “it’s basically forced attrition”.

It turns out that 11B was a people and culture manager for a company based in Wellington (she was definitely going to miss her connecting flight) and had basically not been given a choice by her CEO (and board) and would be spear-heading a ‘quiet cutting’ mission over the next few months.

“I guess it’s the counterpart to ‘quiet quitting’”, she said, clearly now assuming that I must know what that term meant.

I just nodded.

Almost exactly a year ago, I actually wrote a piece outlining why ‘quiet quitting’ wasn’t a new phenomenon despite being a term that had gone viral during 2022. I had explained how quiet quitting wasn’t in fact a new concept at all. It had simply been packaged differently.

Somehow I had a gut feeling that the term ‘quiet cutting’ now had the potential to go viral in 2024, given that my fellow passenger was throwing it around in a conversation with someone she didn’t even know!  

I vividly remember during the GFC having to reduce all my team members’ salaries (including my own) by 20-30% depending on how many days people would be working. Given that some people couldn’t sustain this and chose to look for another full-time job in an industry that hadn’t been so badly impacted by the economic downturn, this could certainly have been deemed ‘quiet cutting’.

For as long as organisations have existed, employers have found themselves in situations where they have had to reduce costs, streamline operations, or make significant changes, ideally without attracting too much attention or causing disruption.

Of course, I understood why 11B was dreading the next few months. Her CEO and board had decided that ‘quiet cutting’ would be a better alternative to redundancies which they felt could negatively impact the company’s reputation, both internally and externally.

Openness and transparency during any organisational restructure will contribute to a more humane and ethical approach to workforce management.

While the decision itself may be difficult, how the organisation communicates and supports employees during such times significantly influences the long-term relationships with the workforce and the public perception of the company. And while the term ‘quiet cutting’ may imply a more discreet approach, my new friend completely appreciated that potentially forcing people out the door (without any form of severance payment) probably wouldn’t reflect well on the employer brand in any way either.

Transparent communication around restructures and redundancies will also help manage the emotions and concerns of those remaining with the organisation, fostering a sense of stability and understanding about the company’s direction.  

So-called more creative approaches such as demotions, reduced hours, and adjusted responsibilities across the business will more than likely increase anxiety and uncertainty fuelling rumours and speculation across the business.

Transparency also builds trust among employees. When organisations communicate openly about the reasons for layoffs or redundancies and treat their departing employees fairly, it helps everyone understand the decision-making process, even if it’s upsetting or if they don’t agree with it.

Maintaining trust is vital for preserving the organisation’s overall credibility.

Knowing that the leadership team is honest about the situation can also foster a sense of shared responsibility and commitment, which can positively impact morale and productivity.

“We’re just going about it completely the wrong way”, my fellow-passenger said. “We’ll end up losing the people we definitely don’t want to lose and this could so easily be prevented if we just ran a standard redundancy process. Besides, I’m being quietly cut, too so I may end up looking for something new myself. Do you know anyone who might be looking for an experienced P&C leader?”

I just smiled as I stared out the window and could see the jet bridge finally retracting.  

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