From “the great resignation” to “quiet quitting”, the latest in a string of headline-grabbing buzzwords is “quiet hiring”. This describes a range of practices – stretching staff to use and develop their skills, redistributing labour during difficult times, and anything that avoids expensive recruitment and advertising strategies. This might mean hiring from a known network, finding promising candidates on sites such as LinkedIn, or building on existing relationships, such as with contractors.
Miranda Kyte, careers advice expert at Glassdoor, says: “Hiring freezes can save money in the short term, but companies still need capable and supported teams to meet their financial and business goals. Staff can be a company’s largest expenditure, and therefore, as the number of companies facing tough economic circumstances increases, practices such as quiet hiring may also grow.”
Jenn Lim, CEO and co-founder of Delivering Happiness, agrees these methods are going to trend upwards during 2023, but says that this does not have to be a negative.
“It’s been cast as very reactive – the necessary move when things are challenging and layoffs are happening, just like ‘quiet quitting’,” she says. “But this is exactly the right time to rethink the way that we hire in general. We want to be sure that people are in the best roles that they can be in a way that they feel engaged, productive and like they’re actually adding value.”
Pay and benefits
When using quiet hiring practices, either to help people stretch to meet new challenges, or asking them to pitch in to meet business needs, the first thing employers should consider is how they are going to reward and motivate employees to reflect the extra work they are being asked to do. This is only becoming more relevant as the cost-of-living crisis progresses.
Lim says: “Pay will always be a factor in decisions on where we choose to work. It’s key to transparency, clarity and psychological safety. If we don’t have that financial piece of the pie, it’s just not going to be sustainable.”
Employers might balk at the idea of paying more while increasingly faced with their own financial challenges, but should compare an investment in higher pay with the potential cost of losing a valuable employee, let alone the financial implications of recruiting and training an entirely new candidate.
Melanie Robinson, senior HR director UK, Ireland, South Africa and Nordics at ADP, adds that incentives should also go beyond just salaries. This might include bonuses, retention payments and overtime, but also vouchers, experiences and team-building rewards. Employers might also use share schemes to gain buy-in to the business’ goals, so that employees understand how their hard work relates to their employer’s success.
For Gaby Joyner, managing director and Europe head of employee experience at Willis Towers Watson (WTW), pay is only part of the picture: “Recognition plays a really important part, and not just financial recognition. It could be all sorts of different shapes and sizes. Increasingly, organisations have recognition platforms in place, but it can be very simple, just a thank you from a manager or leader, for putting themselves out there and trying something new.”
Joyner adds that discounts, particularly for basics like shopping and clothes, can have a significant impact on financial wellbeing during a difficult time, as well as providing recognition and incentives for taking on new challenges.
Penny House Financial Services is in the process of redistributing talent within its own team, with a view to sustainable long-term growth.
Managing director Sofia Jones says: “One of the things I really like to do is to find out what each employee wants to achieve, beyond just the bank balance. Do they want more time with their family? Do they want to learn more? It’s about getting to know them and how they would like to be rewarded, to make sure everyone feels like they are on track – we know there’s no business without the team.”
Burnout and wellbeing
In addition to benefits that motivate and reward staff, employers should ensure they have the support structures in place to either avoid, or help handle, any issues around wellbeing. This is particularly important when so many are working remotely, and could slip through the cracks unseen when it comes to stress.
Lim says: “There’s a line drawn in the sand since 2020, between those organisations and leaders that have learned something about wellbeing and psychological safety, and are applying it rather than taking on a scarcity mindset, and those on the other side.
“If there’s a silver lining from the last few years, it’s that we can talk about these things in healthier ways. We have to think about these things to create long-term, sustainable growth.”
From a benefits angle, employers should look into providing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), financial wellbeing tools and mental wellbeing apps. At its most simple, catering for staff wellbeing also means regular check-ins, and developing positive relationships, where employees do not feel they will be penalised for opening up about burnout or mental wellbeing.
Culture at the core
For many, this kind of redistribution will not be novel, according to Robinson: “Strong organisations will have been doing a lot of this already – giving employees development and promotion opportunities. If you take talent management seriously, you’re always talking about people who have the for stretch assignments and cross-functional projects.”
To get people to pitch in and go beyond their role – in good times and bad – having a positive culture is key.
Ryan Fowler, publishing editor of The Intermediary, who regularly employs quiet hiring practices both in times of business need and as a method of developing top talent, says this culture must be created from the top down: “As a leader, you get people on board by being willing to do things yourself. Everyone should be able to do the job of the person above and below them.”
He adds that this not only helps when covering for potential gaps during hard times, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also is a positive in the long-term, giving future leaders progression opportunities supported by a better practical understanding of the business.
Joyner says: “If you have a culture that’s supportive, open and transparent, you are far more likely to be successful in flexibly redeploying people, compared with a culture of fear or blame. Employees need to feel sufficiently secure to make a move or to take a risk.”
A purposeful approach
WTW itself underwent a period of talent redistribution in 2020, primarily motivated by changing demand during the pandemic, but which resulted in some employees discovering new passions. Joyner explains that redistribution of talent should be undertaken purposefully and with preparation, ensuring that staff are not thrown into the deep end.
Lim agrees that clarity should be at the forefront, both in terms of what the changes are to a person’s role, and how the employee will be affected moving forward. This includes avoiding sugar-coating reality.
She explains: “It sounds so simple, but when an employee understands the ‘why’ for the greater organisation, then then it becomes less of a mandatory move taken out of their control, and more because they’re part of something.
“Even just explaining that there’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of changes are happening, but they’re part of the company and there’s a future if the business gets through this, could be the difference between someone feeling powerless versus being part of the decision.”
With open communication and a strong underlying culture, the concept of quiet hiring could in fact form a solid pillar of a sustainable business with a clear talent pipeline, rather than being seen as a necessary reaction to talent shortages and business gaps.
Indeed, Averil Leimon, leadership coach and director of White Water Group, says: “The idea of this being ‘quiet’ really misses a trick. This could be a very attractive proposition for people if it was accompanied by clear development plans.”
Understanding the realities
One potential concern around quiet hiring is the effect on diversity and inclusion. Promoting from within, or using a network rather than job adverts, could narrow the talent pool and run the risk of fostering unconscious bias.
Kyte says: “Research has shown that referrals and using networks to hire can unintentionally create an imbalance by adding to the concentration of the same types of people in your workforce. Glassdoor’s 2023 trends report reveals diversity and inclusion initiatives will be increasingly important to workers in the year ahead.”
Nevertheless, Leimon argues that if it is used correctly, quiet hiring could also have diversity and inclusion benefits, by helping to foster future leaders.
Robinson agrees: “If leaders are intentional about it, and want to improve, for example, the number of women or people from ethnic backgrounds on the leadership team, they can target top talent through quiet hiring. If you’ve got a good strategy and an intentional approach, it could very much add value.”
Fowler points out that while the potential diversity issues are concerning, working with existing employees means knowing their strengths, where a great CV or disarming interview might belie the truth. Jones agrees that existing employees will already fit a team’s culture and values, in addition to cutting down on training and uncertainty.
This approach perhaps works better for smaller, growing organisations, which benefit substantially from those members of staff who are willing to pitch in, but have less space for those who are happy to stay where they are.
Fowler continues: “Adapting in-house and helping employees develop their skills – even ones they themselves might not have realised they have – can boost loyalty and improve a business. However, there are pitfalls. First, someone who thinks they’re more capable than they are might see others rising and developing their roles and take offense. Meanwhile, you can’t just shuffle the pack forever, you have to still think long-term.”
Whether it is the worry of burnout and disengagement, the potential effect on diversity and inclusion, or any of the other concerns, the clear message is that, as with any people strategy, it takes thought and intention to get quiet hiring right. However, when done correctly, this is more than just a buzzword.
While the phrase itself might make headlines, when celebrating and fostering talent, employers should be anything but “quiet”.