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As tech companies continue to shed employees and reorganize their teams, the phenomenon of quiet cutting is starting to impact software engineers.

With layoffs and firings continuing to rock the tech industry, a climate of job precariousness has set in for the once rock-solid career path of software engineering. Are roles being quietly cut?

In December last year, Justin Garrison, a senior developer for Amazon Web Services (AWS), wrote a personal blog post alleging that he had been told in September that his role was being eliminated, but that he could continue working and being paid as long as there were tasks for him to help with. Furthermore, he would not become eligible for severance until the company had “exhausted other options” – in other words, until AWS decided it had run out of ways to use his labor. By year’s end, Garrison had been in a state of limbo for more than three months.

Garrison sees his experience as part of a broader trend of “silent sacking,” a practice that tech giants such as Meta and Tesla have been called out for perpetuating in recent months. This is where staffers are encouraged to quit by various means – such as being forced to return to the office or take on additional responsibilities – without being formally let go.

Companies may hope this approach helps minimize the negative press associated with layoffs, while still reducing operational expenses by letting go of as many high-earning staffers as possible – in other words, the sort of employees who typically have the option of walking away from a bad situation. Garrison believed that the company was avoiding laying him off, with the expectation that he would quit.

But while Garrison’s experience bears some of the hallmarks of the covert downsizing strategy often referred to as “quiet firing,” there are some key distinctions that point toward a different – and increasingly common – phenomenon: “quiet cutting.”

What is quiet cutting?

The term quiet cutting was coined in August 2023 by the Wall Street Journal, to describe the scenario where employees are kept on staff but reassigned to new roles or departments – a mounting reality where generative AI is forcing many tech companies to quickly pivot. It is a strategy that organizations may deploy in order to navigate operational changes without replacing existing staff. Although this approach may be used to nudge some staff members out of the company, downsizing is not necessarily the company’s primary objective. 

By some measures, quiet cutting might be the new normal. In a global survey of 400 business owners and 600 employees from across various industries, the Bangalore-based manufacturing services firm Zetwerk found that nearly one in four business owners had recently engaged in the practice. Information technology professionals comprised the largest share of surveyed workers, with 39% saying they had been on the receiving end of attempted quiet cutting while on the job. 

“Sometimes an organization is in a transition from one strategy to another and not sure what the second strategy will be,” says Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. In such situations, it may make sense for an employer to continue a staffer’s employment, while also being transparent about the structural changes afoot. 

Rousseau understands why this can be a frustrating position for employees to be put into. However, with regard to Garrison’s experience at Amazon, she believes that the company ultimately acted ethically by communicating honestly about the future of his role. “By telling him that the position was insecure, I actually thought that the employer was being fair and reasonable,” she says.

Even under ideal circumstances, quiet cutting can be a jarring experience. According to Zetwerk’s survey, 39% of quietly cut employees reported quitting after the fact, while another 28% said they planned to. In addition, 56% of the surveyed employees said they would rather be fired outright than be subject to quiet cutting, and half reported feeling betrayed by the experience.

“I generally enjoyed my three and a half years at Amazon, except for how I was treated when they were pushing me out the door,” Garrison tells LeadDev.

How managers can better navigate change 

Although the affected employees ultimately bear the brunt of the stress associated with prolonged or uncertain organizational transitions, quiet cutting also puts managers in a difficult position. 

“Having the job of keeping the team's spirits up while the higher-ups play chess with the company's future makes being a middle manager in uncertain times feel like walking a tightrope without a net,” says Sylvia Baffour, a corporate trainer and emotional intelligence coach based in Washington D.C. 

It is important that managers strike the delicate balance of being transparent without causing panic and being supportive without making empty promises. Crucially, managers must recognize that periods of job uncertainty are stressful and anxiety-inducing for staff. 

“This is where their emotional intelligence skills and empathy, in particular, can really help them steer their team through the eye of the storm,” says Baffour. “This means actively listening to your team members, acknowledging their concerns, and validating their feelings. It's not just about offering solutions but also about creating a safe space where they feel heard and supported.”

Baffour advises that managers initiate regular check-ins with their team members and keep in mind that each individual may react differently to the circumstances at hand. While some may require reassurance about job security, others might wish for clarity on the trajectory of their role within the organization. Baffour also recommends that managers make a point of encouraging team members to lean on each other for support and to be considerate of colleagues who are particularly struggling.

Managers can also lobby to provide tangible incentives, such as retention bonuses, to employees who choose to stay with the company despite knowing that their positions are being eliminated. This kind of approach can be a “win-win” for all parties, says Rousseau, because it reinstates employees’ sense of control over their situation. “It makes them think, ‘I'm not staying because I have no choice. I'm staying because I'm getting something. I'm staying because I like the job and my boss is treating me decently.’”

As for Garrison, the former Amazon staffer eventually decided that he’d had enough uncertainty and resigned from the company in January. He now works as a director for a Los Angeles startup called Sidero Labs. “It’s been really fascinating to see how open the conversations can be and how unpolitic things can be,” he says.