What is Career Cushioning?

Is your organization prepared for “career cushioning”? 

Career cushioning is when employees create backup plans for their financial and career outcomes – just in case their current job doesn’t work out. It is a mindset born out of socio-economic uncertainty. No one feels 100% secure in their current position due to recessions, pandemics, and rapidly changing technology. 

Layoffs and shutdowns are standard practices, and very few employees get rewarded for their loyalty. So, why be loyal? With the limitless opportunities available to start a side hustle or quietly look for other employment, engaging in activities that put the employee back in the driver’s seat is tempting. 

Why is career cushioning like dating?

It has become increasingly common for work and dating habits to go hand in hand. Like dating, employees are also evaluating a job to ensure it is a right fit for them- both spiritually and professionally- and the employer.

Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners

The term “cushioning” came from the dating world. You know, the people who date other people before their current relationship officially ends. In the same way, employees practice career cushioning by looking for (or obtaining) other opportunities or learning new skills that aren’t related to their current position.  

The connection between career cushioning and quiet quitting 

While cushioning is generally done secretly, some Amazon employees took the initiative to advertise they are available for new work opportunities ahead of their anticipated layoffs in 2023. They used the #OpenToWork tag on their LinkedIn profiles to announce they are looking for work. With the recent layoffs this past week, we see they weren’t doing this in vain. 

But what about employees whose jobs are safe? Couldn’t career cushioning just be a distraction and cause them to pull away from the job?

The short answer is yes, but career cushioning on its own isn’t dangerous. Career cushioning becomes dangerous when it co-occurs with “quiet quitting” – when employees do the bare minimum due to burnout or job insecurity. Engaging with or getting them to take on new tasks is challenging because they lose interest. At this point, they’ve already got one foot out of the door, and those other opportunities they seek could be the final push they need to quit.

Could career cushioning actually be beneficial for organizations?

Career cushioning, without the threat of quiet quitting, can be beneficial. Say, for instance, your employees are taking classes and learning new skills independently. Even if those skills aren’t directly related to their current position, continuous learning can make them more productive and efficient in their tasks. The new abilities may even allow them to take on new, more challenging tasks.

In fact, it’s becoming common practice for employers to encourage employees to explore new learning avenues. As a result, employers can take the new skills employees learn and help them build a career trajectory. This is one of the best ways to reaffirm employees and prove that you plan on having them around for the long haul.

What can employers do to mediate career cushioning? 

Career cushioning on the sly can say a lot about the culture your company promotes. Many employees go this route for two significant reasons: 

  1. They have suffered a financial crisis or 
  2. They lack trust in their employer – perhaps from past layoffs or industry norms. 

Employers should acknowledge career cushioning as something that is happening and will continue to happen. What’s important is that they take it by the reigns instead of being passive. Here’s how.

If employees are attracted to projects outside the workplace, this can indicate that they have untapped talent. Get an idea of what they like about these projects, and see if you can incorporate similar work. If you are adding to their work, then promote them. Otherwise, you can shift around their tasks and give them something they’d be more interested in doing.

Another way to mitigate career cushioning is by reassuring your employees that their jobs are safe. You could even help them build their own career trajectory within the company. Once that’s done, provide opportunities and encourage them to learn new skills and become independent thinkers.

Lastly, remember that it’s all about trust. Leadership must be transparent to build trust and support employee retention. Employers should be open about the company’s financial situation and ability to create new career development opportunities. If the company is struggling, it’s just as important to prepare employees and support them through any changes

While career cushioning is not necessarily a problem, it’s most beneficial for organizations when they take full control of it. Yes, allow your employees to learn new skills and participate in other opportunities. But when that happens, be sure to make those skills, activities, and abilities part of their current role. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if that comes with a raise or a promotion, either!

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