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Quiet quitting? Quiet firing? Just stop spying on employees so much

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Kirstin Ferguson

September 9, 2022

Across workplaces right now, there’s a struggle between bosses and employees. Returning to the office vs. working from home. Cost of living increases vs. stagnant wages. Is it any surprise we are seeing concepts like ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘quiet firing’ emerge?

After nearly three years of COVID-19 disruption, employers keen to regain control over their workforce are monitoring employees in ways never seen. Employees, now used to flexibility, are pushing back.

Employee monitoring is not new. Foremen, with a keen eye for discipline and a clipboard, have been ready to pounce since the Industrial Revolution. Two centuries on, it is delusional to believe micro-monitoring every keystroke, reading instant messages or recording screens in real time will prompt an employee to give their full, focused commitment to a role.

Remarkably, Australia ranks first in the world in its use of technology to monitor employees.

Let’s be clear; not all employee monitoring is problematic. Using monitoring technology and data to improve health and safety, reduce fraud, identify incoming cyber-attacks, or prevent data loss are examples where such actions are ethical and justifiable.

Much more challenging to explain is the use of technology to monitor online behaviour and performance of individuals, through surveillance. What happened to values-based companies seeking to foster mutual respect or create psychologically safe workplaces?

Trust is difficult to build and even harder to maintain in a culture where suffocating micro-management is par for the course. All close monitoring will do is prompt those you lead to find innovative ways to ‘quietly quit’ – an idea first created by Zaid Khan, a Gen Z, in a video which has since gone viral on TikTok. “You’re not outright quitting your job,” says Khan, “but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond.”

Australia is not immune from this form of subtle employee activism. A 2021 Herbert Smith Freehills report, which surveyed leaders in large Australian corporations, revealed executives ranked workplace surveillance as the No.1 reason likely to trigger an outbreak of employee activism.

Just pop ‘mouse jiggler’ into your search engine to discover how employees are pushing back.

One YouTuber set up an oscillating fan to move the mouse with a coat hanger so it looks like the computer user is active. Another video shows how placing an optical mouse over a glass causes the small, red light-emitting diode (LED) to bounce light off a surface fooling your computer into thinking your mouse is being used.

On TikTok you can learn how to put a hair pin into the keyboard to lock it into use or on Twitter you can see how putting an optical mouse over an analog watch allows the ticking hand to trick your computer into thinking it is being actively used.

On one level, the ingenuity is fantastic. But what a waste of talent. Imagine if this creativity and innovation was being channelled into the job itself. Imagine a workplace where that creativity was encouraged and workers were trusted to do their best, instead of being monitored and surveilled because employers have no trust.

And what are employers doing with all the data they collect? Is the cost worth the breakdown in trust that follows?

No wonder we are seeing an upswing in quiet quitting. And how are employers responding? In response to ‘quiet quitting,’ some in the US are starting to ask whether ‘quiet firing’ is the new frontier for employers. That is, doing everything you can to get an employee to quit whether through close monitoring of keystrokes, inconsistent performance standards, unreasonable demands.

A quick read of my weekly column, Got a Minute?, will give you a sense of the many and varied ways bad bosses might try and encourage someone to quit.

Which brings us back to workplace monitoring since that is one extreme way to drive employee turnover.

My advice? If you have a problem with an individual’s productivity and performance, collecting data about keystrokes and websites is a Band-Aid solution at best. Instead, underlying cultural issues will need to be addressed requiring good, old-fashioned leadership conversations.

Modern leaders need to ditch monitoring technology designed solely to keep close tabs on every moment of an employee’s working day. Forcing ‘quiet quitting’ is not the way to lead.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a company director, executive coach and author. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the QUT Business School and former Deputy Chair of the ABC.

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