Quiet Hiring Could Be the Reason You Can't Find Work-Life Balance

Juggling parenting and work is notoriously difficult—and certain workplace policies could be making it even harder to manage.

Senior businesswoman standing behind young female colleague working.

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Spend any amount of time on TikTok following the “act your wage” trend, and you’ll get to know (and likely love) “Veronica,” the creation of Sarai Soto. Under her TikTok handle @saraisthreads, Soto addresses toxic workplace culture and offers scripts for overworked employees to advocate for their needs with employers. 

Recently, she’s taken on “quiet hiring,” a trend that, though it has a new name, has existed in some form or other for decades in workplaces around the world. “Veronica” “respectfully declines” to be “quiet hired,” demands to negotiate, and declares she will not work for free.

According to Dr. Mary Blair-Loy, a Professor of Sociology at UC San Diego and co-director of the Center for Research on Gender and STEMM, "quiet hiring" “often refers to the practice of employers assigning additional tasks and responsibilities to and expecting new skills from current employees without compensating them (fully) for this extra work. This allows employers to stretch their workforce without actually hiring new employees.”  

Blair-Loy notes that while “quiet hiring” could benefit employers in the short run and increase their flexibility, it also has myriad hidden costs. In their book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It, Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen list employee burnout, increased turnover rates, absenteeism, and higher health costs as just several risks affecting overburdened employees

Ultimately, Blair-Loy finds these risks disproportionately fall on mothers and caregivers, increasingly driving them from their jobs. “Employers are especially likely to lose mothers and other involved caregivers, who are already more likely than others to leave STEM jobs after parenthood,” she notes.  

Is quiet hiring a cry for parity?

While the act of quiet hiring can feel like it places an unfair burden on employees, it might actually come from a more nuanced place. 

Dr. Shonna Waters is Vice President of Executive Advisory at BetterUp and tracks such workplace dynamics daily. Waters says that, just like its partner workplace trend “quiet quitting” that gained popularity in recent years, “quiet hiring” may be a cry for parity and a return to a more constructive employee/employer relationship. 

“There’s a social contract between an employee and an employer,” Waters says, noting that some of these “contract” elements are stated, as in an employment agreement and job description, while others remain unstated and more subjective, such as workplace recognition and employees feeling appreciated and valued. 

“The boundaries of work have just disappeared. And people are finding this harder and harder to push back [and return to] what was that original contract, what have we agreed to. It can feel like you're on call 24/7, and you’re just owned by the employer.”

Waters says that employees might feel that in many ways they are trying to restore parity through quiet quitting, while employers might then be trying to do the same, reacting with quiet hiring, or in some instances even quiet firing, which Gallup describes as “managers fai[ing]l to adequately provide coaching, support and career development to an employee, which results in pushing the employee out of an organization."

Whichever came first, quiet quitting, hiring, or firing, when these social contracts become blurred,  caregivers are often left in particularly difficult positions. 

How can we measure the cost to parents?

Allison B. is a mother of two who has worked for three Fortune 500 companies within the past ten years. She found that within one of these companies, her role should often have easily been two or more positions. 

“I don’t know anybody who would say that their job is the job of one person. I don’t think that exists anymore in the world that we live in. You can always squeeze more out of someone. And if you can, why would you hire more people.”

Beyond missing small daily moments with family, Allison says in the end one of the biggest things she remembers missing was her son’s first steps.

“I would work during the day, I would do bedtime, and then I would go back to work,” Allison says. “[...] I missed his first steps, which happens, mothers miss those things when they work outside of the home, but I was at home. I just could never step away from the computer. I was working all the time.” 

When asked what she felt the cost was to her family life, as a primary caregiver with a small child, Allison says “I felt so stressed. How do you determine the cost to your husband, your child, to your mental health, your well-being? Companies will tell you they have flexibility but that flexibility comes at a cost. I would drop my kid at daycare and be rushing back for a meeting, and the phone would already be ringing. It just sucks. It sucks so much. Your attention is always split, it’s always divided.” 

Waters also notes that deciding whether to advocate for your needs as a caregiver with your employer can feel like it further complicates potentially already tricky conversations during difficult times with threats of downsizing and layoffs lingering. 

“If you mention it, does that then further handicap you? And does that then end up sounding like you’re expecting your coworkers without children to carry extra weight?” she says.  

“I think it can really be a loaded issue in what’s already a complex dynamic.” 

A BetterUp Labs study from May 2022 found that parents who worked full-time rated issues like inadequate pay, poor management, toxic culture, and inflexible or long hours—all hallmarks of quiet hiring culture––as being those that most affected their mental health.  

Kate Hutson, a life and career coach and owner of Shattered Glass Coaching, noted that this kind of working environment has an effect on interpersonal working relationships as well as the homelife of caregivers.

“It can lead to strained relationships with colleagues and supervisors,” she says. “Quiet hiring can [also] create resentment and reduced job satisfaction, which negatively impacts working relationships.”

For Allison, the pressure to perform to the fullest in all her roles became overwhelming, as she pursued the myth of work-life balance with a small child at home. 

“I wasn’t sleeping and I was just so angry and upset all the time. And you know, when a mom isn’t feeling her best it impacts everybody [in a family]. I was finding it was too hard to switch on and off with work.” In the end, she decided to make a change and ended up leaving her former employer for a job that allowed for better boundaries and more flexibility. 

What are your non-negotiables?

Waters acknowledges that it can be difficult to find a path forward if you’re not in a position to leave a toxic workplace, but that even when no exit route exists, there are ways to make the best of a bad situation. 

Her advice? Consider shifting mindsets around your situation, and look for the positive, no matter how small. 

“Focus on the learning,” Waters says. “What do you want to learn from this experience? Especially if you’re in a situation where you don’t necessarily have the power or safety or security to switch jobs or create a hard line with your employer, just getting really clear internally and working on being optimistic about making the best of the situation you’re in and making it work for you as much as you can is the most empowering way to approach.”

When you talk with supervisors about your needs, though you may feel like empowerment means employer recognition or rewards in the workplace, remember that it can come in other forms too according to Waters. 

“It can come in small doses. What’s your one non-negotiable? For a lot of caregivers it’s about the kids, ‘Well I’m not going to miss bedtime, so even if I have to log on after bed, I’m going to be there for that time with my child.’ You have to have some non-negotiables so that holistically you can maintain your well-being and life satisfaction.” 

Waters says that quiet hiring can even have benefits for employees like the opportunity to grow new skills, move into areas they have an interest in, or even get additional visibility within the organization. 

However, no amount of spin can change caretaker responsibilities at home. 

“You only have 24 hours in a day,” Waters says. “You have to figure out what is workable and what is possible in your life.” 

Regardless of the situation, Waters recommends employees lean into any support they may have within their community to help meet their home needs. This could involve more formal arrangements like outsourcing housework, securing after-hours childcare, or using a meal service—or more informal arrangements like banding together with a local moms group, orchestrating playdates, or taking up friends and neighbors on the offer of a meal train during difficult seasons. Whatever the solution entails, Waters urges parents to get creative to preserve their well-being as much as possible. 

Boundaries, at last?

Even after leaving difficult working environments with the lack of boundaries and unreasonable workloads associated with quiet hiring, the impacts of these experiences can linger long into the future. 

Allison finds her experiences with quiet hiring inform her interactions with colleagues to this day. “I always preface my comments with, ‘This is not urgent, you do not need to respond to this immediately.’ If it’s really urgent I’ll let them know. [For the most part though] there’s nothing so urgent that I would pull them away from their families, it’s just not how I operate.”

Allison says she feels a greater sense of alignment working for a company that she knows values her time both within the workplace as well as the hours she spends with her family. 

“I feel like I have balance now. I feel like I still talk about work a lot but I do shut off at the end of the day. I feel like ‘OK, evening time is time for my children.' I might check email before I go to bed, but I do feel like now there are boundaries in place.” 

In the end, Allison feels a sense of peace about the fact that she knew exactly what her priorities were.

“I hit the point where it was too important for me to screw up,” she says of her decision to leave behind a toxic workplace for a more supportive environment. “My child and my family are too important to sacrifice for this.” 

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