Michelle Clayton Quells Quibbles of Quiet Hiring: Learning and Growth by Any Other Name

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From quiet quitting to quiet firing, the latest buzzword confirmed a quiet hiring trend. Or is it? After all, smart companies have been leveraging internal talent for decades. We sit down with Michelle Clayton, Director of Talent and Organizational Effectiveness at Visier Inc., to get to the heart of the matter—and explore why quiet hiring has taken a bad rap recently.

Key Takeaways:

  • Quiet hiring is the practice of adding new skills and abilities to an organization without adding to the full-time headcount;
  • The negative connotations around current hiring stem primarily from lack of employer clarity in job architecture and/or misaligned hiring practices;
  • Where quiet hiring is common practice, leaders need to loudly promote it as core to their culture—and key to both employee and organizational success.

Recently dubbed the #1 Future of Work trend for 2023 by Gartner, quiet hiring has undeniably leapt the chasm of popular consciousness on the alliterative coat tails of other quiet, post-pandemic catchphrases.

Defined by Gartner as “offering new ways to snag in-demand talent”—and actually a common, progressive practice across flexible, fast-paced, competitive industries—quiet hiring has nonetheless taken on more negative connotations as of late—with some employees feeling pushed into or overburdened by new roles and duties. 

For Michelle Clayton, Director of Talent and Organizational Effectiveness at Visier Inc., a global leader in people analytics, it is a topic that lies close to heart. As a proponent of the principals of quiet hiring, admitted to being a bit surprised by the negativity it has generated.

“When I look at recent publications on quiet hiring, I see it’s being used as an umbrella term for a number of techniques that result in acquiring new skills and new abilities without adding new full time employees. It’s really about wanting new skills and abilities without increasing the headcount. To be honest, I think it is clickbait,” said Michelle. “I think the negativity stems from a misperception. Techniques in quiet hiring—job enlargement, job enrichment, job rotation, moving people internally, contracting—those have been around for decades.”

“Really, it goes hand in hand with job design, which is all about realigning tasks, responsibilities, and skills to adapt to the changing internal and external environments. Quiet hiring is a way to acquire the skills and capabilities needed to take advantage of those changes or deal with things reactively,” she added.

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As a professional practice, it is not only common, but one Michelle has experienced and benefited from herself—most recently in her transitional role as Visier’s director of people operations, balancing myriad duties as the company aligned for further growth.

“My job was very large in scope, so when we are talking about job enlargement and quiet hiring, it is something that I have experienced myself in multiple places,” said Michelle. “I love this topic and it’s actually something I train our managers on.”

Michelle not only eschews the recent slurs against quiet hiring but points out why it has been a popular practice since the 1960—both in terms of motivation and talent retention.

“Getting nerdy, if we go back to the 1950s, there were new theories of motivation. Frederick Herzberg in 1959 published his new theory on motivation—what creates job satisfaction for people and why this was actually important,” Michelle explained. “He said, ‘If we can create job satisfaction for people by linking the work they do in their professional environment to their personal motivation, they are going to be more satisfied at work. They’re going to be more productive and they’re going to want to stay.”

Such thinking not only holds true today, but has become quintessential in a competitive, knowledge-based, global economy.

As for accusations that such smart thinking has been put to ill-use—resulting in the negatively-tinged ‘quiet hiring’ monicker—Michelle disagrees, but understands where both dubbing and drubbing stem.

“For starters, not every employee wants to grow in this way. Not everybody wants to develop their career in this way. Some people truly want to be specialists or micro-specialists. They want to come in and know what they do, do what they love, then leave—and that is totally valuable. That’s why you have some jobs with very specific job descriptions in particular types of companies. That’s why you have contract workers or gig workers, right?” said Michelle. "In some companies and for some jobs, you do just want people to come in, do X, Y, Z and go home; it’s not a bad thing. It’s not that they are bad people or that the employer is asking for bad things, but there is a comfort level there.”

On the employer side of the equation, a failure to clearly communicate growth and development as core to organizational strategy can foster even greater disenchantment company-wide.

“I don’t know if bungled is too harsh, but how the change is managed between a leader and an employee or an organization and a leader, is definitely open to improvement for many companies,” said Michelle. “There are some real basics that sometimes get missed around saying to employees, ‘Okay, here is what is changing. Here are some new expectations I have of you.’ Without clarity on what is needed and why, it’s hard to both give people the data they need to make smart decisions and also create an emotionally compelling message that makes them want to do it.”

Moreover, leaders need to ensure that additional duties are balanced by tradeoffs and new roles remain a fair reflection of both job description and total rewards.

“Inevitably there is work that needs to be given up so that people are not doing two or three full roles. Where companies have been slow to adjust those tradeoffs that can definitely create stress and negativity if it’s perceived they are taking advantage of people. Hopefully, over time and ideally within a few weeks of that transition, the tradeoffs are made and the employee can understand the why and know what the new role demands,” said Michelle.

“Because our jobs are continually evolving, you are always going to have to be learning things that are different and that might be a bit more complex than what you learned five years ago. In that way, jobs are always changing, so I don’t think that necessitates a pay increase,” said Michelle. “That said, in order to be fair to the employee, companies need to go back and revisit that job or skills architecture to see how those jobs and skills are being valued and revise accordingly, so you can advise and pay people fairly. I don’t think it’s fair to guarantee people promotions or raises, but what employers CAN do is help employees understand what a significant increase in complexity would look like that would warrant a change in pay or promotion.”

For those companies built with internal development in their DNA, Michelle stressed the importance of being loud and proud about the practice to avoid ‘quiet’ quibbles.

“(At Visier) this is part of the employer brand internally in terms of culture—wherein we want people to learn and grown and that is an expectation of your current job. Learning and growing is not a guarantee of promotion. It’s not a guarantee of anything other than your organization’s ability to remain viable—to provide services and products to your customers as the case may be,” said Michelle.  “When recruiting people then, it is critical to find people who understand and want to contribute in this way—people who are comfortable with ambiguity, finding information and co-creating what a job looks like.”

That said, she stressed the importance of patience in finding that fit.

“I think it’s a challenge to search for people who want that because people are feeling a lot of stress as the pandemic is winding down in North America and job expectations are changing again as they did three years ago,” said Michelle. “Again, it’s not that people can’t do these things, but that they don’t want to be changing in all aspects of their life. As a result, it might take longer to find and hire the right person who is able to manage change in more aspects of their life at once.”

Regardless, Michelle is adamant about the value of finding and retaining such talent.

“What we are seeing with investors, especially private and venture, they’re looking for growth, but they’re also looking for profitability. So, it’s no longer just about growth, and in order to be profitable, why wouldn’t you work with your people to co-create learning and job opportunities that they’re excited about—where they use that specialized knowledge they have attained over time and where you are retaining them? This is a huge retention play for the company and a major counterpoint to balancing hiring costs,” Michelle explained.

As for those contending with quiet hiring ‘contentions’ from within, Michelle encourages putting the term to the side and a focus on the following:

Be clear when figuring out if learning and growing is part of your culture. If it is, then shout it loud and proud when you are recruiting. Make it part of your employer brand and help people see practically what that means for them—and why people inside your organization find it invaluable.

Go back and look at your compensation to ensure you are still aligning job responsibilities to your reward structure. Take a close look at how you recognize people for learning and the progress they are making. How do you provide micro-pay increases? What is the rhythm and the criteria for that? This can lead to better career conversations and opportunities for employees and employers alike.

Help employees make the choice that’s right for them. Again, I think that if this is not what people want right now, there are plenty of other opportunities available, but staying with your company for the long run is probably not the right fit. There are other places where they are going to be a fit, so sit down with them and help figure out where that is.

As for quiet hiring going away? The negativity, yes. The practice, no.

“As I said, this is clickbait and a bit of PR here. Quiet hiring is absolutely trending and on the way up, but that is not a bad thing,” said Michelle.

“When we look at the data at Visier, we want to see internal mobility. We want to see people using our professional development funds because that is something are retaining to show our employees how we are investing in them and their careers. We don’t want people leaving or lay-offs, so we want to hear their perspectives,” said Michelle. “Ultimately, I think it comes down to reframing quiet hiring as a career development opportunity and helping employees make choices that are good for them and the business.”

As both an HR leader and embedded in operational teams, Michelle Clayton has contributed to rapid growth in organizations on five continents. She currently combines her enthusiasm for people and data as the leader of talent and organizational effectiveness for Visier, the global leader in people analytics.