When a company decides to cut costs, employees are all too familiar with the shrinking budgets and painful layoffs that can follow.
But what if instead of a “reduction in force,” your employer tells you that you are getting a “reassignment of duties”? Also dubbed as “quiet cutting,” it’s what happens when you lose the role you were hired for, but not your job.
And according to a new Wall Street Journal report, this practice is on the rise as more employers, particularly those in tech, are doling out these reassignments to frustrated employees. The article cited data from financial research platform AlphaSense, which found that the mention of “reassignment” terms have more than tripled during company earnings calls between last August and this month.
“It’s something I’ve definitely dealt with this summer, and within the last few weeks, for sure,” Peter Rahbar, an employment attorney and founder of the New York-based law firm The Rahbar Group, told HuffPost. “I’ve had some clients who have been a victim to these types of reassignment changes.”
After a reassignment, it can be hard to tell what your future holds. The good news is that you still have a job, and the stability and paycheck that affords you. But the bad news is that you’re in a role that you did not get hired for.
“The messaging that I have heard is, ‘You have to take it or leave it. And it’s your choice.’ So there is no severance language around getting some sort of compensation,” said Nadia De Ala, founder of Real You Leadership, a group coaching program for women of color.
Why employers are doing “quiet cuts.”
Bonnie Dilber, a recruiting manager with app-automation company Zapier, said these kind of reassignments can happen for roles that have transferable skills like recruiters, sales or support that also have natural ebbs and flows in their work streams.
“If you don’t have enough work to do and your employer chooses to find other ways to keep you employed, that’s a good sign from my perspective,” Dilber said. “It means they are trying to avoid a layoff. At the same time, at some point, it may not make sense to keep people doing other projects other than what they were hired to do long-term.”
That’s why it could be a signal to get your resume ready, in her view. “I would probably view this as a sign of potential trouble while also appreciating the opportunity to remain employed. I would probably start exploring options and putting out feelers just in case,” Dilber said.
But in a lot of cases, it could have no benefits and may just be a way of pushing you to quit. Rahbar said the practice of “quiet cutting” is not new to this summer, and one of the main reasons it happens is so that the company can avoid paying severance to employees.
“I would probably view this as a sign of potential trouble while also appreciating the opportunity to remain employed.”
- Bonnie Dilber
“Many major companies in the U.S. have done many rounds of layoffs within the past year and a half, like they’re reluctant to spend more money on severance, particularly with people they just hired,” he said.
One other reason you could be getting reassigned? It might be because the person who used to do the work is gone. Eddiana Rosen, a human resources specialist with recruiting experience who coaches job seekers, said that “quiet cuts” can happen after department layoffs and “those left behind now are picking up the extra work of those that were let go.“
In these cases, whether or not you can thrive after a “quiet cut” can depend on if you are being set up for success or if you’re being set up to do more work with less resources.
“It could truly be temporary and that will depend on the relationship you have with your manager. And it can also be that the more you do without asking for compensation or title changes, the more [the] company will squeeze,” Rosen said.
Rosen said that this kind of “squeeze” happened to her once in her career. “I spoke up, but in reality, the company saw how much I did and it was not in their best interest to change it for my benefit so the only way to ‘fix it,’ in my situation, was to leave,” she said.
Is a “reassignment” just code for being pushed out? It depends.
In a best-case scenario, a “quiet cut” lets you grow into a role you’ve been wanting to try out anyways. “You build new skills and can even add a new job title to your resume if you’re in another role for a meaningful period of time,” Dilber said.
At the same time, if it’s happening suddenly without your feedback, that’s not a good sign. In fact, if it makes your job worse and you feel like you have no choice but to quit your job to advance your career, you may not just be getting “quiet cut” –– you could be getting “quiet fired.”
“If this happens against your will, into an area where you’re not set up for success, or is a way of significantly lowering your responsibilities, then it could signal some sort of trouble and I might find myself worried that I’m being managed out,’” Dilber said.
“I don’t see it as ever being a good thing for an employee,” Rahbar said, noting that it can be a sign that you are seen as expendable. “If it were to happen to me, the first thing I would do is probably start my job search immediately for something that did suit my skills where I would be a better fit.”
Can you fight back against “quiet cutting”? Yes, if you can prove it’s retaliatory.
Many of us are at-will employees that can be fired at any time and have our duties changed without our input.
“Generally, employers are free to reassign workers so long as they do not violate an employment contract or union agreement in the process,” said California-based employment attorney Ryan Stygar.
But employees still have rights, especially if you believe the reassignment is retaliatory.
“Employers could just simply move you to another job with notice, without notice, with reason or without reason. And the only thing is they can’t do it for an illegal or discriminatory reason,” Rahbar said.
In the context of “quiet cutting,” Stygar said to watch out for subtle signs like a change in title, change in job duties, or a reduction in hours, pay, benefits or even perks you usually enjoyed.
Rahbar said it can help an employment lawyer if you can figure out who else got a reassignment. “Did this happen to anyone else on your team? Did this happen to anyone else in your bigger group or division? Is it just happening to a particular gender?” Rahbar said you should try to find out.
And look at the timing of when the reassignment happened to see if it’s retaliation.
If “the new assignment is significantly inferior in pay, seniority, or work conditions, then it can be considered retaliatory if this is done shortly after a protected activity,” Stygar said. “We see this most often when someone returns to work after disability or maternity leave. The employer may be angry about having to accommodate you, so to punish you and send a message to other employees, they will [discreetly] eliminate important job duties and responsibilities in a way that cuts your pay and diminishes your standing in the organization.”
In other words, if you are getting reassigned after taking protected leave, or complaining about harassment or missing wages, then it’s time to talk to an employment lawyer, Stygar said.
Use the “quiet cut” as a time to reassess your future.
A “quiet cut” gives an employer the upper hand, but it’s your career. Your employer can decide what job they think is best for their bottom line, but so can you.
“If you are looking for an opportunity to quiet quit, this is the time,” De Ala said. “This is a really great time for you to think about whether you want to stay or leave your company.”
And while you’re deciding what to do next, ask questions. Ask what opportunities exist and how your performance can be improved in your new position, Rahbar said.
Advocate to get clarity about this transition. “How did they make this decision? How will they be handling your transition and supporting you for success?” De Ala said to ask your manager.
Ultimately you get to decide if the reassignment is a good move for your career, no matter how your boss is pitching it.
“If it’s putting you into a field that you dislike or you don’t feel supported and set up for success, it could hurt you, regardless of your employer’s intentions,” Dilber said.