Career Cushioning: What It Is and How to Handle It

Fév 2, 2023 | Employee Engagement, Professional Development

What is career cushioning? Essentially, it involves creating a backup plan for one’s current job. But good performance management can help employees see a bright future for themselves in your company.

Career cushioning isn’t a new concept. Career coach Catherine Fisher coined the term in late 2022 in a LinkedIn post, but she was describing a longstanding concept. She presents it as “hedging your bets” by looking at options in case you need a new job. 

Table of Contents

1. What Is Career Cushioning

2. Reasons Why Employees Engage in Career Cushioning

3. Signs of Career Cushioning

4. Is Career Cushioning Ethical

5. How to Prevent Career Cushioning

What Is Career Cushioning

“‘Career cushioning’ is going through the motions of the job search without formally quitting first—which has always been the move,” explains Fortune. Of course, employees typically do this discreetly, as Bloomberg notes.

But career cushioning can involve other tactics as well. In many cases, it involves expanding one’s professional network. For instance, an employee might seek new knowledge or training that they don’t need for their current role.

In sum, there are multiple degrees of career cushioning. Some employees are simply studying the market to prepare for involuntary termination. Others are building their portfolio or making connections. Still others are psyching themselves up for a potential career move in the near future.

They might become passive candidates for recruiters looking for their specific skill set.

How do we know that career cushioning is on the rise? A 2022 report by Gloat found that 52% of employees are either already looking for a new job or plan to do so within the next three months. And 72% feel they can find better job options elsewhere—up from 66% in 2021.

Reasons Why Employees Engage in Career Cushioning

Woman of colour pondering career cushioning
Credit: Christina Morillo/Pexels

Why do employees start to consider career cushioning? Myriad reasons can trigger them to start—here are several prominent ones.

Dissatisfaction with Their Role

Career cushioning may occur because employees truly feel dissatisfied in their job. They may have realized that it doesn’t align with their passions. Or their career goals may have changed over time. Job cushioning allows them to explore options without worrying about a resume gap.

Anxiety About the Future of Their Role

Employees might just feel anxious about an impending recession. They may worry that their company will downsize, so they want to prepare. In particular, the younger generations seek stability, fueled by the 40-year inflation high. And 81% of employees feel worried about the possibility of losing their job.

At the same time, layoffs aren’t actually that high right now. They just feel high compared to the past couple of years, which brought them to a 30-year low.

Desire for Work/Life Balance

Many also crave more balance in their lives, as Jane Thier explains in Fortune. “Over the past three years, workers have largely redefined the role they expect their jobs to play in their life, and are more willing than ever to abandon a company that doesn’t offer flexibility and balance.”

The Increase in Opportunities

Across industries, job opportunities are higher than pre-pandemic, writes The New York Times. So, the temptation to look at other options has grown. 

When do employees start to consider career cushioning? Because there are multiple reasons for job cushioning, it really can happen at any stage. But here are a few career moments when an employee could be especially prone to start cushioning:

  • They’ve just received an unfavorable performance review. So, they fear their company will let them go soon (or they feel the role is a bad fit).
  • They’re highly skilled for their role, and there’s no promotion in sight.
  • Family responsibilities have changed, and they’re struggling to find balance.
  • They know their company is struggling. Perhaps they’ve heard a rumor about layoffs in the pipeline. Or, they simply worry about its ability to survive a tough economy.

“Employers often overlook two underlying factors in an employee’s motivation to find a new job: lack of trust and financial security,” writes SHRM. “If employees knew more about their company’s plans and fortunes, they could take proper precautions to ensure they are ready for their next step.”

Signs of Career Cushioning

Here are a few signals that employees may be career cushioning:

  • Updating their LinkedIn profile.
  • Seeking skills that don’t directly connect to their current role. (Do they seem to be upskilling for a particular position?)
  • Starting a new side hustle or moonlighting in a certain role. (They could be taking steps to become an entrepreneur or making themselves more marketable.) Currently, 40% of Americans actually have a side hustle.
  • Talking with new professional colleagues outside of their immediate network.

Keep in mind that none of these signs automatically mean an employee is cushioning, though. Plenty of people have a side hustle just to pursue a passion or earn extra income.

Importantly, employees who are career cushioning haven’t necessarily checked out. After all, they would want their organization to give them a positive review. Many are still giving their best effort to their job for this reason.

Is Career Cushioning Ethical

It all depends on how far an employee takes it. Career cushioning during off-work hours is one thing. But if an employee is looking at job listings while at work, that’s another. Further, if time spent on career cushioning is impeding work/life balance, the quality of the employee’s work could suffer.

Career cushioning could be viewed as unethical if it dominates an employee’s focus. If the employee starts putting in less effort, that’s obviously a problem—particularly if this continues over a long period. (But as mentioned, it won’t necessarily have that effect.)

In some cases, job cushioning might just ease an employee’s anxieties about the future. They don’t necessarily want to work somewhere else—they just want to know they could.

In short, cushioning isn’t inherently unethical. If employees are engaging in it as part of a well-managed transition into a new career, that’s their right. The real issue is that you don’t want to lose your talented employees—so, you don’t want them to want to cushion. Fortunately, you can take steps to make career cushioning a less attractive option. 

How to Prevent Career Cushioning

Group of happy, diverse, inclusive employees not considering career cushioning
Credit: Fauxels/Pexels

How can you prevent (or at least reduce) career cushioning in the workplace?

First, know that employers can’t prevent it outright. Trying to control career cushioning by confronting employees would be misguided. Rather, employers should focus on building loyalty by making their company a great place to work. Otherwise, they’ll just scare employees away. 

Be Transparent

Reassure employees that you expect their jobs will remain stable (if this is accurate). By easing fears about layoffs, you can encourage loyalty. Or, if the company is struggling, be transparent, advises SHRM. That way, employees can prepare appropriately rather than panicking. 

Find Alignment

Talk with them about their values and look for alignment. Where can they find more purpose in their work? To 86% of employees, this alignment has great importance, Gloat found.

Provide Professional Development

Have a career development plan in place for every employee. Update it regularly based on changing personal goals and interests.

Use performance management software to help them fulfill their career goals. In the process, you’ll enhance the employee experience. Employees will feel more engaged when they can easily track their goal achievement.

Share Opportunities

Just 13% of employees feel they know what opportunities are available in-house, says Gloat. Talk about potential chances for promotion. Be transparent about doors that may open without making promises. Especially when managing high-performers, you need to engage them with the potential for advancement.

Discuss opportunities for nontraditional career moves. After all, some employees’ career goals may have shifted. Can you open doors for lateral moves, for instance? Encourage managers to talk regularly with employees about their aspirations. Let them know you truly want to support them in achieving their dreams.

Giving them meaningful ways to explore new career pathways in-house will help prevent job cushioning and attrition, as SHRM asserts.

To change this, 33% of organizations are creating an internal talent marketplace, Gloat found. This normalizes the idea that career paths can lead in all directions.

Offer Next-Level Support

Ask about how the company can better support employees’ needs. Explore creative solutions for scheduling or offer sought-after benefits, for instance. Show compassion for their needs and go the extra mile to support them. 

Career cushioning has one serious upside for employers: It shows that employees are driven to succeed. You just need to help them channel that drive in a way that benefits the organization. The people who are cushioning might then be the ones who contribute the most value in the future.

These strategies can help make employees more excited about their current jobs. In addition to preventing job cushioning, they’ll also boost engagement. You’ll end up with a team of more loyal and committed employees as a result.

Learn how software can enhance the employee experience—and loyalty! Request to demo our product today.

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