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November 7, 2023

You’re Probably Already Quiet Hiring: 5 Steps to an Actual Process

a person whispering to another person "you are hired"

Psst…are you quiet hiring? It's okay, you’re not alone.

Like many companies, you’re probably quiet hiring without even realizing it. According to 81% of executives, employees are working across functional boundaries more and more often each day. Whether temporary or permanent, moving employees from one role or department to another due to need is common practice — but it’s not without its risks. 

From skills gaps to perceived favoritism, quiet hiring can lead to stagnation or even internal conflict. And with everything else on your plate, it can be tough to find the time to transform your ad hoc quiet hiring practices into a documented process that benefits both the business and your employees.

Let’s take a closer look at how to take your quiet hiring practices from stealthy to healthy.

What’s on the docket:

  • What is quiet hiring?
  • What to consider before you “quiet hire”
  • 5 steps to a quiet hiring process that works for everyone

What is quiet hiring? A potential win-win for you and your employees

From quiet quitting to quiet firing, quiet hiring is yet another in a long line of trending workplace buzzwords. But what does it actually mean?

Quiet hiring is a way for organizations to gain new skills, without hiring full-time employees.

The term was coined by Emily Rose McRae of Gartner and started to generate buzz back in January with this CNBC article.

One of the biggest reasons quiet hiring is so hush-hush (pun totally intended), is that few companies have a dedicated process for this increasingly common practice. Whether you realize it or not, you yourself are probably engaging in some degree of quiet hiring. Here’s how that might look.

Real examples of quiet hiring at work

Quiet hiring strategies can involve asking an employee to temporarily take on a new project or role. In this instance, a current team member fills a temporary gap when another employee quits, or functions as a cost-effective stopgap when you don’t have the budget for new hires. 

This can create an opportunity for high-performers to grow and flourish in an expanded position or stretch project, leading to skills development or acquiring new skills, raises, and even promotion opportunities. But if you’re not careful, it can also look like piling extra work onto the plates of already-busy team members, without compensating them. 😬

Then there’s external quiet hiring. This occurs when an organization hires short-term contractors or freelancers to get work done quickly. Tapping into the fractional workforce allows you to prioritize speed and agility, without increasing your headcount. It’s also great for filling gaps during a hiring freeze.

Many companies also engage in full-time quiet hiring. This occurs when organizations hire full-time employees without the structured interview process, usually in an effort to get someone qualified into the role ASAP. However, that need for speed can lead to blind spots that may stand in the way of a fair and equitable hiring process.

Whichever way you slice it, the common thread with quiet hiring is that it doesn't require any new full-time hires. At the end of the day, it’s a new name for an age-old HR practice. But if you’re going to reap the benefits of quiet hiring, you need to do it right.

Things to consider before you “quiet hire”

Here are a few key factors to think about before turning up the volume on quiet hiring.

1. Impact on employee engagement

As workplace expert Liz Ryan puts it, “We don’t teach pilots to fly by putting them in the cockpit of a real airplane. Give [them] training wheels. Let [them] gain confidence. That’s at least as important as learning the procedures of the job.”

While quiet hiring can lead to growth through hands-on employee upskilling, it can also come with some not-so-good side effects for employee engagement.

Quiet hiring practices may lead to skills and knowledge gaps as “quietly hired” individuals embark on new internal opportunities, leaving unfilled responsibilities in their wake. Reshuffling your internal talent can also lead to resentment among team members who don’t get to learn new skills or get promoted.

This can be especially problematic if there's no documented process or transparent communication around how and when employees are given more responsibility. With employee engagement at an all-time low, this is not the place to cut corners.

2. Potential for bias

Bypassing traditional recruitment methods may mean missing out on the diverse perspectives and fresh ideas external hires can bring.

By relying on internal promotions and referrals, you risk overlooking qualified external candidates with skills and experience you may not have known you needed. This lack of “fresh blood” and ideas can lead to stagnation, creating an overly homogeneous workforce that may miss key opportunities for growth.

3. Legal risks

Because quiet hiring can exclude candidates from historically underrepresented backgrounds, it may also lead to an increased risk of discrimination claims.

If it appears that certain candidates are being given preferential treatment without transparency into the selection process, quiet hiring can also lead to claims of nepotism or favoritism. Eventually, this could result in legal challenges from both candidates and employees.

If you’re actively quiet hiring, make sure you’re classifying your contractors correctly and keep an eye on your EEO categories to ensure a balanced and representative workforce.

4. Culture add

Research shows favoritism can actually increase burnout by 23%.

But when approached correctly, for example alongside a structured professional development program, quiet hiring can boost employee engagement and retention. And if internal mobility is aligned with your quiet hiring practices, it can lead to a stronger culture overall. 

According to Deloitte, one organization saw an almost 30% increase in employee engagement after creating an internal career program focused on empowering employees to develop new skills and explore other roles.

5 steps to a quiet hiring process that works for everyone

Despite the potential drawbacks, quiet hiring can work wonders for an organization if it’s approached thoughtfully.

Here are the steps to take to create a quiet hiring process that works for your business and its employees.

1. Prioritize transparency

For quiet hiring to work, you need to be open and honest with your employees. 

Is it a learning and development opportunity that could lead to a promotion? Or a temporary solution to help the company through a rough patch? To build trust and ease concerns about job security, speak openly about how and why the company is employing this strategy.

Update job descriptions where relevant and make sure the whole team understands why you’re choosing certain individuals for new or expanded positions. Keep the process clear, fair, and totally above-board so other team members have a clear path to advancement they can shoot for. Clarify and document your processes to avoid legal issues or accusations of favoritism.

Actions to take:

  • Add quiet hiring to your documented talent strategy
  • Share it with your employees and explain the long-term goals
  • Hold an open Q&A session to address questions directly 
  • Document everything

2. Run a skills gap analysis

A skills gap is a mismatch between the skills employees have and the skills the business needs in order to remain competitive.

By figuring out where you’re short on skills, you can strategically quiet hire to fill those gaps. That may mean hiring consultants or contractors on a short-term basis, or upskilling an existing employee or entire department.

Actions to take:

  • Conduct a skills gap analysis to identify and prioritize key business areas
  • Provide training and other tools to help employees build new skills
  • Move employees up in their role via upskilling or into a new role via reskilling

3. Maximize existing skills

For quiet hiring to really work, organizations need to move beyond pure necessity and tap into an employee’s intrinsic desire to learn and grow. 

For example, let’s say you have a talented copywriter named Sam and you need additional web development support. You’ve noticed Sam does a lot of work in the backend of WordPress and naturally excels at it. You ask him to provide extra support on a few key tasks. In this instance, quiet hiring can help you recognize Sam’s hard work, while providing strategic support where the company needs it most. 

To develop new skills in enthusiastic workers like Sam, you may need a little help from a more formalized training program. From bootcamps and apprenticeships to personalized mentorship opportunities, the options are endless.

Actions to take:

  • Set structured milestones for growth and development
  • Provide 1:1 support through individual coaching or mentors
  • Create peer learning groups for actively upskilling employees
  • Offer employees multi-channel upskilling opportunities through online and applied learning

4. Compensate fairly

According to research from Gartner, only 32% of employees believe they are fairly compensated. If you’re asking employees to pull double duty, make it worth their while. 

Encourage employees to take on new responsibilities by offering additional compensation for additional work. Whether it’s a one-time bonus for extra tasks, additional vacation days, or structured pay raises — be ready to acknowledge the additional work they’re putting in.

Actions to take:

  • Offer clear financial incentives for additional labor
  • Regularly review and adjust compensation packages where needed
  • Grant additional perks and benefits in lieu of/addition to financial incentives

5. Formalize your employee referral process

If you’re looking to hire externally without the “noise” of a large recruitment campaign, start by creating a structured employee referral program to maximize fit and draw from a pre-vetted talent pool. 

After all, who understands the company’s needs better than your current employees? Just make sure there are clear guidelines specifying the type of talent you’re looking for and offer bonuses for successful matches.

Actions to take:

  • Determine your external hiring needs
  • Build your employee referral framework
  • Outline program rules
  • Promote your incentives or rewards

A quiet hiring process worth shouting about

Quiet hiring isn’t just another workplace trend or human resources buzzword. It’s a real opportunity to step up and help your employees build the skills they need to remain successful.

But, like all things hiring, you have to come at it from a place of intention.

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