Need to start saving with a new ATS? Learn how to calculate the return on investment of your ATS Calculate ROI now

Career cushioning: a new trend and a call for action

Career cushioning, a strategic approach for job security involving networking, upskilling, and exploring side gigs, grows amid economic shifts. With 68% of US workers adopting this tactic, understanding its implications is crucial for effective talent management and retention strategies in today’s ever-changing professional landscape.

Keith MacKenzie
Keith MacKenzie

Passionate about human resources, employment, and business management, and an expert at sharing that expertise.

Meet Claudia Feinstein, an experienced project manager at a bustling tech startup. It’s a typical Monday morning, and she’s quietly updating her LinkedIn profile with a couple of the huge wins she and her team have accomplished along with some newly acquired skills.

Don’t get stressed about this – Claudia isn’t leaving tomorrow. She could just be proud of the work she’s done, but let’s be real: with all the economic uncertainty and industry layoffs, Claudia’s likely just building a backup liferaft. You know, just in case.

This is a strategy known as ‘career cushioning’. This approach involves networking, upskilling, and even exploring side projects, all to ensure a safety net is in place should their career landscape shift unexpectedly.

Claudia’s story is becoming increasingly common – Fast Company is calling career cushioning a trend set to grow in 2024.

What’s career cushioning?

First, let’s define it. Career cushioning refers to the practice of employees taking proactive steps to secure their professional future, often in response to economic uncertainty or a desire for greater career mobility.

This can involve activities such as networking, upskilling, building a personal brand, or exploring alternative job opportunities, all while remaining employed in their current role.

The evolving economic landscape and shifting employee priorities have given rise to this phenomenon. According to a Robert Walters survey, 68% of workers in the United States are now career cushioning.

68% of workers in the United States are now career cushioning. (Robert Walters survey, 2023)

That’s a significant number. As HR professionals, knowing this trend and its implications is crucial for navigating talent management and retention strategies.

What’s causing career cushioning?

Two major factors contribute to the growing prevalence of career cushioning:

Economic uncertainty: Global economic headwinds, inflation concerns, and high-profile layoffs have instilled a sense of job insecurity among employees. Those jitters are motivating employees to build out that liferaft, so to speak – just in case their careers are impacted.

Evolving priorities: The “Great Reshuffle” highlighted the shift in employee expectations, with many seeking greater work-life balance, flexibility, and purpose-driven careers. Side hustles are becoming more the norm and workers are less willing to put all their eggs in one basket in their main hustle.

What are the signs of career cushioning?

It’s not necessarily a reason to pull the fire alarm across the organization, but it’s something you should be mindful of as an employer.

HR advisor Taylor Queen at Insperity in Florida tells Fox Business: “Although ‘career cushioners’ may not want to leave their current position, they decide to get a jumpstart in case their role should change or be eliminated.”

So, to get ahead of this, it’s important to recognize these signals not only to understand individual employee needs but also to reflect on the broader organizational health.

Here are the key indicators:

1. Increased networking activity

Employees may intensify their connections on professional platforms like LinkedIn, often updating their profiles and engaging more actively with external networks. This indicates their intent to stay visible and relevant in the broader industry landscape.

2. Pursuit of additional qualifications

Enrolling in online courses and seeking certifications are signs that employees are gearing up for new opportunities. This continuous learning can be a double-edged sword: while it boosts their current role performance, it may also prepare them for external opportunities.

3. Exploration of side hustles

Engagement in side projects or freelance opportunities often reflects a desire for greater job security through diversified income streams. This could also point to a lack of fulfillment or challenges in their current roles.

4. Discreet job search activities

Subtle signs like increased private calls, discreet meetings, or a sudden spike in personal appointments during work hours could suggest that an employee is interviewing elsewhere.

What can you do as an employer?

Is career cushioning something to worry about? Maybe. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity for HR to adapt and enhance talent management strategies:

1. Foster open communication

Create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing career aspirations and concerns. Regular check-ins and feedback loops can provide valuable insights into employee sentiment and identify potential flight risks.

Not quite communication, but on that last point – you can also use predictive analytics to find those trigger points that lead to turnover, and preempt them ahead of time.

2. Invest in employee development

Prioritize upskilling and reskilling initiatives to equip employees with the skills needed to thrive in evolving roles. Providing learning opportunities demonstrates a commitment to employee growth.

3. Champion internal mobility

Establish clear pathways for career progression within the organization – in other words, establish a culture of internal mobility. Encourage employees to explore different roles and departments, fostering a culture of talent development.

Those who stay with you even in different capacities will prove more valuable due to their familiarity with your brand and product/service.

4. Review compensation and benefits

Regularly benchmark compensation and benefits packages to ensure they remain competitive within the industry. Consider offering a range of attractors in your total rewards package, including clear career paths, flexible work arrangements, and well-being programs to enhance employee satisfaction.

5. Build a strong employer brand

Cultivate a positive work culture that emphasizes values, purpose, and employee recognition. Promote your employer brand through various channels to attract and retain top talent. Make your people proud to work for you!

You, too, can be their career cushion

“There’s a bit of a game of musical chairs playing out, and employees don’t want to be caught out when the music stops without a seat,” said Korn Ferry client partner Mark Royal, according to CNBC.

By understanding the motivations behind career cushioning and implementing proactive strategies, you can support employees like Claudia Feinstein to not only be assured of a seat in your company, but also motivate them to choose that seat should they have options in the future. And that’s the music your employees want to hear.

Frequently asked questions

Related Definitions
Related Topics

Let's grow together

Explore our full platform with a 15-day free trial.
Post jobs, get candidates and onboard employees all in one place.

Start a free trial