An Ethical Approach to “Quiet Hiring”

Quiet hiring is unofficially having an employee take on new responsibilities or hiring contractors rather than full-time employees. The most honest and ethical approach to quiet hiring requires transparency.

Many economists believe we are heading into a recession. That means hiring and promotions, which require corporate spending, will be tamped down. One way to avoid limiting the promotion and hiring of new people is to do what some are calling “quiet hiring.”

Quiet hiring is unofficially having an employee take on new responsibilities or hiring contractors rather than full-time employees, according to a recent report in Entrepreneur by Madeline Garfinkle. “Internal quiet hiring means current employees might temporarily move to other roles or take on different assignments within the organization. External quiet hiring means hiring short-term contractors to keep the business running without taking on more full-time employees,” she writes.

Economical but Unethical?

It sounds to me like quiet hiring is a good way to keep expenses down—or a good way to take advantage of desperate people in bad times. Employees are afraid to lose their jobs in a recession, and likely will take on whatever their boss asks them to do to hold onto their jobs, including taking on new duties they didn’t originally sign up for, without being rewarded with higher pay and a higher-level title.

Similarly, hiring contractors is also economical, but comes with ethical questions. The problem comes when the majority of an organization’s employees are full-time with benefits, and a minority of employees are working almost as many hours, but without the benefits and security of full-time employment. This happened to a friend of mine, who, for years, was asked to work just one hour shy of the required hours of a full-time employee. As a result, she did not get the benefits of full-time employment, yet she was basically a full-time employee.

Be Transparent

The most honest and ethical approach to quiet hiring requires transparency. “…Without adequate transparency about the reasoning behind the decision to implement quiet hiring, some employees might take the shift from their current role into another one as a signal they aren’t needed and, therefore, begin looking for other opportunities,” Garfinkle notes Gartner research expert Emily Rose McRae as telling CNBC.

For internal quiet hiring, that means presenting the new assignments as learning and development (L&D) opportunities. For example, let’s say Susan has been working as a marketing writer, but you need additional project management support, and you have noticed that she performs some management tasks already anyway in the natural course of her workflow. Quiet hiring gives you a way to acknowledge that work and formalize it on her record, even though you can’t yet offer her a promotion with a raise. “Susan, we have noticed that, in addition to doing the writing behind our projects, you also have taken on some of the work that should have gone to our project managers. You have been doing such a great job at communicating with our clients that I want you to know we have noticed, and want to see if you would be willing to do more of it. The idea is that if you like it and excel at it, we may be able to move you up to a higher-level project management position over the next couple of years. Would this interest you?”

The employee may feel compelled to say, “Yes,” even if becoming a project manager isn’t appealing to them, so be sure to give the employee a way out. “Of course, we don’t want to push you in a direction you don’t want to go. We value the work you currently do, and want you to remain happy and engaged in your work.”

You also can be transparent and note to the employee that you simply need their additional help to get the organization through a financial rough patch. “Susan, as you’ve probably heard, we’re moving into a recession, and our company may not be generating as high a level of revenues as we have in the previous years you have been with us. As a result, I wanted to give you a heads-up that you may be asked to take on more project management work than you usually do. I want to assure you that this is not a permanent arrangement. This additional work is just to get us over this hump, and as soon as possible, we will be hiring another project manager.”

Honesty Is the Best Policy

The wiliness of employees to pitch in with a positive attitude when their employer has been honest with them is often impressive. The worst is when you get additional assignments without acknowledgment of what the long-term plan is. The employee deserves to know if this is a learning and development opportunity with a promotion in their future if it goes well, or if this is a temporary addition to their workload during challenging times.

When hiring, being honest also goes a long way. “John, we would love to have you as a member of our team. You will be working with our team of full-time employees, and will be a full member of that team. However, at this time, we can’t offer you full-time employment and benefits. When, and if, it becomes possible for us to offer you a full-time position, we certainly will, assuming your work performance is at the level we need it to be—which we expect it will be. Is that an arrangement you can live with?”

With honesty, you can make quiet hiring an ethical, happy solution for both your company and the employees you are asking for help in hard times.

Does your organization engage in “quiet hiring”? If so, how do you do it transparently, so employees don’t feel they are being taking advantage of?