Is “Quiet Promotion” Going On in Your Company? How to Find Out and Fix It

There was “quiet quitting,” then “quiet firing.” Now there’s “quiet promotion.” Find out more about this latest workplace trend and why it’s a problem.

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Is “Quiet Promotion” Going On in Your Company? How to Find Out and Fix It

Here's what you need to know:

  • Quiet promotion is the managerial practice of increasing employees’ workloads and responsibilities without a pay increase, title change, or formal recognition of the additional duties
  • This latest workplace trend — like the ones before it — is really an old operating tactic with a new name
  • The practice is often stealth-like but can also be upfront and transparent
  • In most cases, quiet promotion is a quick, practical solution to a staffing shortage
  • But in the long run, an overloaded, undercompensated workforce could be a problem when productivity, retention, and overall job satisfaction are at stake
  • If you think quiet promotion is lurking in your organization, you can start damage control by targeting negative traits employees associate with the practice, including unfairness, dishonesty, distrust, and exploitation

There was “quiet quitting,” then “quiet firing.” Now there’s “quiet promotion.” This latest workplace trend — like the ones before it — is really an old operating tactic with a new name.

Quiet promotion is the managerial practice of:

  • Increasing employees’ workloads and responsibilities without a pay increase, title change, or formal recognition of the additional duties.
  • Assigning employees more work than their colleagues with similar responsibilities or titles.
  • Adding a departed worker’s duties on top of their own workload.

If quiet promotion tactics sound familiar, they should. Managers and supervisors engage in the practice all the time.

The practice is often stealth-like but can also be upfront and transparent. For example, when employees go out on leave, team leaders may ask their coworkers to “pinch-hit” for them until they return without expecting a promotion or pay raise in return.

In most cases, quiet promotion is a quick, practical solution to a staffing shortage. But in the long run, an overloaded, undercompensated workforce could be a problem when productivity, retention, and overall job satisfaction are at stake.

Why do employers quietly promote workers?

The combination of company layoffs and workers quitting their jobs in record numbers are driving more employers to load departed employees’ duties onto current staffers.

Also, sometimes a long time-to-hire period forces employers to turn to quiet promotion for a quick fix to a staffing problem.

The combination of company layoffs and workers quitting their jobs in record numbers are driving more employers to load departed employees’ duties onto current staffers.

But a deep dive into why employers resort to quiet promotion uncovered even more reasons, such as:

High employee replacement costs

Quiet promotion typically is less expensive than replacing an employee. According to The Harris Poll on Behalf of Express Employment Professionals, rising employee turnover costs employers $26,511 a year.

However, that number can be as high as $50,000 a year or more, or a 20% increase, depending on a company’s size.

Hiring hurdles

Besides trying to keep up with a labor force in flux, employers maintain that they still have trouble finding workers with the skills they need.

Since new hires may lack the same level of skills as the departed employee, using quiet promotion to tap into the knowledge and skills of those remaining on staff seems like a quick and immediate remedy.

Besides finding it difficult to fill openings, employers in the Harris poll described their biggest hiring worries as:

  • Increased job-market competition (35%).
  • Talent-pool skills that are misaligned with company’s needs (29%).
  • Inability to connect with diverse candidates (23%).
  • Difficulty evaluating candidates’ skills in the hiring process (23%).

Higher turnover

The rise in employee turnover leaves more staff vacancies and unfulfilled duties. Among the employers in the Harris poll with the highest turnover rates, the most common reasons cited for losing workers were:

  • More opportunities for career advancement elsewhere (37%)
  • Better pay and/or benefits elsewhere (35%)
  • Employee resignations (33%)
  • Retirement (33%)
  • Better perks (32%) (e.g., working from home options, no limit on vacation days).

Salary cuts

Some companies want to cut salary costs by assigning an employee tasks that more than one person should be doing.

Ad hoc tasks

Employers sometimes file additional job duties under this category. Usually, employers ask workers to take on these extra tasks when unexpected situations occur.

Quiet promotion isn’t always intentional, and it doesn’t always originate with employers. Workers often take on more responsibilities as they become more skilled in their jobs or as a company grows.

Research shows a rise in quiet promotion in companies

New research shows that quiet promotion is on the rise. JobSage, an employer review site, asked 1,000 full-time workers about their experiences with both quiet promotion and “quiet thriving,” the ability to survive on the job despite carrying a bigger workload.  Quiet promotion affected most of the workers surveyed.

JobSage found that:

  • A significant majority of workers, 78%, said they experienced quiet promotion.
  • 67% said they took on the workload of a departing higher-level employee.
  • 73% said a manager asked them to take on responsibilities above their position.
  • More than half, 57%, said they felt taken advantage of or manipulated when asked to take on more work.
  • 68% were assigned more work than others with a similar title.
  • Just 22% rejected their employer’s attempts to quietly promote them by refusing to take on more work without a promotion or pay increase.
  • 63% said they believe a company would suffer if an employee refused to be quietly promoted.

Employees don’t always know when they’re being quietly promoted. But they know when they’re being underpaid, unrecognized, and not promoted for their work.

Workers want career advancement

The JobSage study also found that most workers are looking to move up in their careers. About 63% said they wanted a promotion or the chance to move into another role within their organization.

Even more workers in the study, 68%, said they took on extra duties thinking that they would be promoted.

Workers feel underpaid and unrecognized

Although most workers in the study experience quiet promotion, with no extra pay for taking on a bigger workload, nearly 2/3 think they’re underpaid in their current position.

As for getting noticed for doing their jobs well, 42% of those in the study feel their employers don’t recognize their efforts.

Quiet promotion generally doesn’t work well for employees, as the study results show, and that’s not good for employers.

Why does quiet promotion hurt businesses?

Employers may think their reasons for engaging in quiet promotion are practical, but the negative impact on employees is bad for business. Here are some of the risks:

Productivity

Employees who feel overworked can end up over-stressed and burned out. Burnout, in turn, cuts productivity and raises turnover. In fact, behavioral scientists believe that burnout, turnover, and job satisfaction are interrelated and interdependent.

Culture

Another problem with quiet promotion is the lack of recognition for employees with bigger workloads. The lack of appreciation they feel raises questions about an employer’s culture.

According to greatplacetowork.com, employee recognition is central to creating and maintaining a workplace culture that supports, engages, and retains its workers,

Turnover

Morale, along with culture, come under scrutiny when employees feel betrayed, like those in the Harris poll. With no opportunity for promotion in sight, employees who feel taken advantage of through a quiet promotion are likely to look for another job.

Lawsuits

There’s always the risk of employees suing employers if they feel the employer has treated them unfairly. Failing to promote, compensate, or recognize employees for taking on additional work could be grounds for unfair treatment.

Quiet promotion knocks the meritocracy myth

Employees’ perception of quiet promotion as an unfair practice raises questions about meritocracy, the idea that “people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”

If employers base their organizations on meritocracy and fairness, as they often claim, shouldn’t employees who take on extra work and perform their jobs well expect to get promoted, paid, or at least recognized for it? And, if so, shouldn’t employers end the practice of quiet promotion?

A report by faculty at the University of California at Berkeley and Erasmus University challenges meritocracy as the reason most people advance on the job.

The report examines promotional opportunities and recognition based on career choice, personal or organizational allegiances, and political or social ties rather than merit. It also points out that promotion opportunities are scarce compared with the number of people who want or feel they deserve them.

If employees discover that their job performance isn’t always based on meritocracy, maybe they should just accept quiet promotion as a hazard of employment that’s not about fairness or equality.

In fact, a LinkedIn report calls meritocracy a “toxic myth.” Employees may want to believe that taking on more responsibility on the job is worthy of a promotion or more pay, but according to the report, racial, gender, and cultural bias; personality preferences; and employee visibility often drive compensation and career advancement decisions.

How to undo the “quiet promotion” problem

If you think quiet promotion is lurking in your organization, you can start damage control by targeting negative traits employees associate with the practice, including unfairness, dishonesty, distrust, and exploitation.

Then undo the damage it may be causing your employees by:

  • Being upfront and honest when asking them to take on additional work assignments.
  • Being candid about whether promotions or pay increases are possible for doing extra work.
  • Explaining the reasons for increasing their workloads and why they’re important.
  • Giving them resources needed to perform their jobs, including the information and tools additional duties may require.
  • Reviewing their current job descriptions and recording any new skills or knowledge they gained while taking on new assignments.
  • Taking time to formally recognize outstanding performance.
  • Conducting surveys to gauge their attitudes about their current workloads and how they feel about accepting new assignments.

You can turn quiet promotion into a positive experience for employees. Just make sure your managers and supervisors are equipped and ready to make it happen.

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