Career cushioning can soften the landing in uncertain times, but is this really a new trend?

Originally published in the Globe & Mail February 3, 2023

The past few years have brought us some catchy work-related phrases: the great reset, resignation and reshuffle, hybrid working, productivity paranoia, quiet quitting, quiet firing, quiet hiring and anchor days to name a few. The latest in a long list of work alliterations is career cushioning, which seems to have made its debut just before the holidays.

Career cushioning is giving yourself a fall-back plan, to “cushion your landing” in case of a layoff. It can involve anything to prepare for your next role: building new skills, taking courses, looking out for opportunities or refreshing your profile on LinkedIn, raising your networking game, keeping in touch with recruiters or testing the market for an entrepreneurial venture.

Cushioning is not a new term – it comes from the dating world, where daters would go out with multiple people at the same time to hedge their bets. So, in a workplace context, cushioning is not necessarily committing to a new job or venture, but warming up the opportunity pipeline, if you will.

Career cushioning may sound a lot like managing one’s career, which is not only acceptable but encouraged as a regular practice in most humancentric organizations. We’ve been telling employees for decades that they own their careers, that they always need to build new skills and think about what’s next. So how is this different?

How far career cushioners push toward actively seeking new employment may vary depending on how secure they feel in their current role or company, how enthused they are by their current role or company, and how valuable they believe their skills to be in the current environment.

We may be seeing an uptick in career cushioning because of similar factors that drove the great resignation, including re-evaluating work-life balance and changing expectations (for example, related to environmental, social, and governance issues, hybrid work or purpose-driven culture), compounded by job-impacting headlines regarding economic uncertainty, layoffs and automation.

A recent LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index stated that 85 per cent of U.S. workers are concerned about inflation, yet just 44 per cent feel prepared for an economic downturn. Research from Robert Half states that half of Canadian employees plan to look for a new job this year – up from 31 per cent six months ago.

So, is career cushioning a bad thing?

Employees no longer feel the same sense of loyalty and exclusivity to their employer, after having witnessed or experienced disloyalty on the part of their organizations. To protect themselves, to pursue an area of passion, or both, an increasing number of people (40 per cent of Americans, up from 34 per cent in 2020, per a Zapier study) are engaging in work outside of their current employer, through “side hustles,” which can be classified as a common form of career cushioning.

If employees are not letting responsibilities slide, or behaving unethically, and are meeting objectives as expected, career cushioning can actually help organizations accelerate a smoother outplacement, in cases where layoffs are deemed unavoidable.

So, what can leaders do to work with, rather than against, career cushioners?

  1. Keep it real: Savvy employees are always thinking about what’s next. They know it’s never a good idea to rest on one’s laurels. Having transparent career conversations with employees allows you to coach them toward future roles and lets you get ahead of and plan for transition, inside and outside of the company.
  2. Use data: Pay attention to engagement survey trends and have regular stay interviews with your people. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently said, “The dumbest time to run exit interviews is when employees quit.” Keep a finger on the pulse of why employees join, and why they stay, through surveys across the team and organization, and by regularly asking them, so that you can course-correct based on feedback before it’s too late.
  3. Prioritize knowledge management and succession planning: While trending terms like great resignation, quiet quitting and career cushioning are signals of unrest, leaders should always have a healthy amount of paranoia that their best employees could leave at any time. Often knowledge leaves with them and teams are left in the lurch because of poor knowledge and succession management practices.

If you are looking to add some “stuffing” to your cushion, don’t forget about your network. Whether your next anticipated career move is entrepreneurial or within the same or another organization, sponsorship (having someone proactively vouch for you) is critical. Building and maintaining relationships, by keeping your network active and participating in communities that inspire you, is the best thing you can do when you don’t need a job.