It's no secret: Many employees have a "Plan B" in case things start to go badly with their current job. But now, even more workers are creating contingency plans to protect their professional and financial futures amid economic uncertainty, cutbacks and layoffs. "Career cushioning" and "job cuffing"—terms adapted from the dating world—are the latest buzzwords to describe employee backup plans.
"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," said Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners, a consulting service in Temecula, Calif.
In dating, cushioning occurs when an individual considers a new partner while still in a relationship to lessen the possible shock of a breakup. In the workplace, career cushioning translates to looking for a new job while employed to soften the financial impact of a job change.
Cuffing is similar but is seasonal. This is when people stay in a relationship until cold winter weather gives way to spring, which naturally signifies a time for change. Companies that count on staff to hit year-end numbers may welcome a reprieve in employees quitting, but experts caution against relying on cold weather to stem turnover.
"Given the continuing historically high quit rates since April 2021, it would be overly optimistic for business and HR leaders to depend on job cuffing as a retention strategy," said Jeff Schwartz, retired Deloitte principal, U.S. leader of its Future of Work program, and current vice president of insights and impact at Gloat, a workplace software development company in New York City.
Leaders are still overwhelmed from struggling to find talent. Those who have hired enough staff have a new worry—retention. Understanding how and why employees are career cushioning or job cuffing can offer insight into strategies that can encourage them to stay.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median job tenure in the United States is 4.1 years. That translates into the average worker holding eight to 10 jobs across their career, Kriegel said.
"To have those career moves pay off, it is advantageous to be employed while looking for a new position," Kriegel said. "Companies are more apt to hire someone who is already working. You [employees] don't have to worry about a job gap in your resume, and you can be more selective about the job you accept."
While career cushioning is common—almost expected—employers often overlook two underlying factors in an employee's motivation to find a new job: lack of trust and financial security. According to Kriegel, 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.
"If HR professionals want workers to support the company and increase retention, leadership must build trust and transparency, just like dating," she said. "Employees must have the security they need to know that their job is safe and the company is in sound financial standing."
Transparency is just as essential if an organization has fallen on hard times. Communicating the challenges and expected duration allows employees to properly prepare for layoffs or pay reductions.
"Employees who are unaffected will have a greater appreciation for leadership because of their openness and honesty," Kriegel added. "It breeds a successful work culture that can help in employee retention, countering career cushioning."
Fifty-two percent of workers are looking or planning to search for a new job within 90 days, as revealed in Gloat's Great Resignation Report 2.0. And 72 percent of employees believe there are more or better opportunities outside their organization, according to the same report.
"While some employees may hibernate for the winter, many more might be looking for their next opportunity after the holiday season," Schwartz said. "There are still many career and job opportunities for virtual and hybrid work in many industries and sectors."
Instead of relying on employees to stay in place due to job cuffing, Schwartz encourages leaders to move away from seeing career development linearly and instead build a dynamic, multidirectional organization for career exploration and growth.
Schwartz says multidimensional growth responds to what employees desire, including:
- Purpose, or work that aligns with their values.
- Flexibility in scheduling and location.
- Growth and meaning in their work and the chance to explore new projects, jobs, experiences and learning opportunities.
"Internal talent and career markets are game-changing moves that every company should be pushing ahead in 2023," he said. "Internal markets give companies more than a fighting chance to ensure their employees, especially those [who are] highly skilled and motivated, have more opportunities for growth inside your company than outside."
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.