Labour law calls it 'constructive dismissal'. TikTok has a different name for it.
Once, when I was around 21, I had an eye-opening conversation over lunch with someone who had worked for years in managerial positions at charities. While my mind was occupied with graduate opportunities and starting salaries, his was elsewhere. “There are some people we probably don’t need anymore,” he said of his organisation as we discussed how our respective work lives were going. Did he mean their contracts were up, I naively asked? No, he said. “But there are things you can do to make people move on.”
I wasn’t completely sure what he meant at the time, and I didn’t ask — probably because I knew on some level that I wouldn’t like the answer. But in the almost-decade since, I’ve become familiar with this particular dirty little secret that that particular boss had no problem sharing: workers are forced all the time to leave jobs against their will as a result of behaviours or actions that happen or are allowed to happen so that a job becomes untenable. Labour law has a name for this scenario: constructive dismissal. Naturally, TikTok has one too: ‘quiet firing’.
Hot on the heels of ‘quiet quitting’, the ‘quiet firing’ hashtag boasts tens of millions of views on TikTok and endless posts to scroll through. In most, someone — sometimes a ‘job coach’ or ‘work-life influencer’ — runs through the signs: your manager changes their behaviour towards you or they tolerate poor behaviour from your colleagues towards you; your shift patterns or tasks are altered unreasonably; your grievance is ignored; you’re demoted or have your benefits taken away without reason; eventually, you leave of your own accord. In short: nobody ever tells you you’re fired, but they make it impossible for you to stay.
@sjeddywellness Quiet firing occurs when a manager wants to avoid officially firing or laying off a worker by making their working conditions so toxic the employee resigns! #quietfiring #resignation #ToxicWork ##toxicworkplaces##workplacewellness##sumanawellness##managerswhoquietfire##EmployeeWellness##managersbelike ##YYC#c#calgarymo#moved ♬ original sound - Will Wuich
This type of ‘quiet firing’, while easy and convenient for our bosses, can be traumatic to deal with, and often has significant a impact on not just our income and stability — if it results in unemployment — but also on our mental health and wellbeing, as we reckon with both hostile treatment and wondering why our boss felt the need to get rid of us in the first place. But usually ‘quiet firing’ has far more to do with the structure of capitalist work itself than it does with our performance: as individual workers we’re disposable and replaceable and constantly at the behest of our employer’s whims about how to run things. Our employment situation shapes our whole lives, both in and out of work, but to our bosses, we’re like pieces on a board game or Sims whose novelty has worn off.
There are some silver linings to that admittedly depressing state of affairs, however. What the majority of posts about this phenomenon neglect to mention is a crucial detail: that the so-called ‘trend’ of quiet firing is already a legal concept known as constructive dismissal, and that workers have protections against it and rights when it happens. In the UK, to be eligible for a claim of constructive dismissal, you usually need to be an employee (rather than a contractor) and to have worked for your employer for at least two years. Workers bringing claims of constructive dismissal will need evidence, and taking an employer to a tribunal is a last resort when everything else has failed — but it’s an avenue that exists, and one which can see workers claiming sizeable compensation for their treatment.
Unfortunately, not all examples of ‘quiet firing’ meet the criteria for constructive dismissal, something which bosses are all too aware of. If you’ve found yourself unfairly shunned before your full employment rights kick in at two years, or had your probation period disingenuously extended before you’re given a permanent contract, your employer probably knows what they’re doing. Similarly, if you’re not an employee at all — like the many thousands working in the gig economy or as so-called self-employed contractors — you’ll have little to no recourse if you’re unfairly pushed out.
Constructive dismissal cases are also hard to prove, and unfortunately, for this reason, they are often unsuccessful. In many cases, our employers make a calculation that the likelihood of a successful claim is so low that breaking the law is still worth it. The boss class share this learning freely amongst themselves and act accordingly; think of the landlords who bypass the hassle of trying to illegally evict their tenants by simply refusing repairs and ignoring complaints until they leave, seemingly by choice but ultimately by force. Just as my lunchmate all those years ago had, the powerful gleefully work together to write and implement a secret playbook of strategies for getting around our interests both legally and illegally — and for the most part, they get away with it.
That’s why social media conversations about ‘quiet firing’ — or any other workplace ‘trend’ — need to go further than just repackaging concepts which already exist and then stripping them of their legal context. Our bosses already have more power than us, both because they directly employ us and because they know exactly how to get the most out of that transaction at the expense of our health, financial security and happiness. It’s in their interests for us to engage in conversations that obscure the limited rights we do have and divert our attention away from trying to improve them or make them work for us.
The only thing that has ever improved workers’ lives and conditions has been acting collectively in pursuit of shared goals. Social media can be a powerful tool in that fight, but it can also encourage us to think individually and incentivise us to reinvent the wheel for clicks and views at the expense of real knowledge and power. What workers need is active unions, strength in numbers and a genuine understanding of their rights and protections; only when those are the next big ‘workplace trends’ everyone is talking about will things start to change for the better.