“Milt, we’re going to need to go ahead and move you downstairs into Storage B… So if you could just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, okay?” – Bill Lumbergh, Office Space (1999)

Early on in the classic workplace comedy, Office Space, audiences were introduced to Milton Waddams, a hapless character – brilliantly portrayed by actor Stephen Root – whose most valued possession seems to be the red Swingline stapler he’s reappropriated from the office manager, Bill Lumberg. As viewers soon discovered, Milton is the office misfit, shuffled from cubicle to cubicle in the supposed hope that he’ll eventually quit. When he’s finally moved into a basement storage space, the company stops paying him (“we fixed the glitch”), and his stapler taken away from him, it’s the last straw.

In contemporary employment language, Milton was a victim of quiet cutting.

In a recent Fast Company article, Danielle Doolen defined quiet cutting in simple terms: “Quiet cutting does not involve cuts that result in clear termination, but rather cuts that downgrade roles, responsibilities, and/or compensation.” In a diminished role with potentially reduced pay and benefits, the employee simply quits rather than continue in a lesser capacity. In practice, it’s a way to rid the organization of someone by making them so miserable that they quit independently, saving leadership the time and effort – and potential legal hassle – of firing them.

The Quiets

In recent years, the rise of “the quiets” in business and industry has been hard to miss. In 2022, quiet quitting was all the rage, so much so that The New Yorker declared it The Year of Quiet Quitting. On the heels of the Great Resignation, unhappy workers simply mailed it in. Rather than quit or seek employment elsewhere, dissatisfied employees would simply put in the minimal amount of effort necessary to avoid being fired. The practice wasn’t exactly new – in the military, we’ve long referred to this as retired on active duty – but it caught the attention of a large swath of the workforce and it became the post-pandemic term du jour.

Then came quiet firing, something not unlike being ghosted in the workplace. One day you’re in the inner circle, the next you’re on the outer limits looking in. Key leaders stop responding to your emails, your phone calls go unanswered, and you’re left alone to just kind of muddle along. Ultimately, according to Zapier recruiter Bonnie Dilber, you “either feel so incompetent, isolated, and unappreciated” that you leave for another job, or you become so demotivated that your performance drops to a point where you can be terminated. You save your leadership the trouble of actually doing their part to help you a contributing member of a team.

Finally, there’s quiet hiring, something with which many of us have experience. Quiet hiring allows an organization to address immediate, often acute needs without expanding the workforce. Quiet hiring involves assigning existing employees to new roles, expanding employee responsibilities, or leveraging temporary workers – such as contractors or freelancers – to fill those needs, all without making any new hiring decisions. When done right, the practice tends to upskill high-performing employees and increases engagement, productivity, and retention. When done wrong, quiet hiring can reduce diversity, create a lack of transparency and trust, and create a hostile environment driven by perceptions of favoritism.

Cutting to the Chase

Quiet cutting is nothing new, although the term is a relative newcomer to the list of quiets. In a recent Zetwork survey of 414 business owners and 601 employees from various industries, nearly one in four organizations engage in quiet cutting. Of the employees subjected to the practice, almost 67% either quit or begin preparing to do so; the remaining 34% are eventually fired. While the rationale for quiet cutting may vary across industries, the focus of the practice does not: 93% are entry- and mid-level employees who may lack the maturity or savvy to fight back.

On the surface, quiet cutting might seem very similar to quiet firing. In some circles, quiet cutting is considered a subset of quiet firing. But in practice, the differences are significant. Where quiet firing leaves you feeling “incompetent, isolated, and unappreciated,” quiet cutting leaves you feeling frustrated, underutilized, and angry. Leadership isn’t ghosting you; they’re abandoning you.

The question remains what you should do if you think you’re being quietly cut, if you can do anything at all. Where you might have some options in the event of quiet firing – which is typically a reflection of poor leadership and lazy management – quiet cutting is usually rationalized in such a way that it’s difficult to push back or elevate your concerns. But you do have choices.

First, ask yourself why. This requires a fair amount of self-reflection, but it’s important to understand the why behind it all. Everything happens for a reason. Are you alone? Is it happening to others? Why is this happening? Context matters. Second, weigh your options. And you do have them. Is this a temporary setback or something that you can recover from? Do you have other roles that you can assume? The key is to not cling to a role when the rug is being pulled out from under you. Third, choose your path. Don’t wait to be part of the 34% who eventually get loudly fired. The writing is on the wall. Read it. Take control of your own destiny. Fourth, start over. With the experience behind you, start a new chapter on your own terms. Find a job where your contributions are valued and appreciated. Don’t linger on the past. Your success is the best form of revenge.

Whatever you do, don’t follow Milton Waddam’s example at Initech. Even if your cubicle is stuffed into a basement storage room.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.