'Career Cushioning’: Looking for the Next Job

Spooked employees are starting to increase job-hunts just as leaders are trying to hit year-end results. 

News of cutbacks and layoffs abound these days. But so apparently has the reaction from employees, who are working hard on Plan B.

Fearing for their own future, workers are on the hunt for new jobs, a time-draining process that comes just as many firms are counting on staffs to hit their year-end numbers. Human resource pros have dubbed the behavior “career cushioning.” “The risk to management is that the shiny new opportunity will be more interesting than the current one,” says human resources expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

According to a September survey by Bluecrew, two-thirds of workers planned to seek out new jobs to combat inflation in the next year.  The timing is not ideal for leadership: With the economy rolling into a potential downturn, companies would typically draw on a reservoir of good will and energy from employees, says Mark Royal, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. He says that managers should perceive employees’ job searches as a serious indicator of an engagement problem. “Maybe employees feel that the company doesn’t recognize what they bring, or doesn’t value them as people,” says Royal.

To be sure, some employees, fully aware that performance reviews and bonus season are approaching, may be rolling up their sleeves to help their firms—not to find their next job. But for those too distracted by looming headlines, the shift to career cushioning will likely lead to poor work quality, says Nathan Blain, global lead for Korn Ferry’s Optimizing People Costs practice. He points to the positive correlation between employee commitment and individual job performance. “That’s a very strong relationship, so it’s really important that leaders get their teams 100% committed to the job that they have.”

Counterintuitively, experts do not suggest trying to stop team members from looking elsewhere. “You can just assume that it’s happening,” says Blain. He suggests starting with regular one-on-one conversations about career trajectory and performance. These are separate conversations, and not a career discussion as a coda to a performance review. Career talks focus on what an employee wants, where she or he is heading, and how to get there—and it’s okay if that career points outside the organization. “You are better served if you have that conversation and are open about it,” says Blain, because careers are long, and boomerangs or future overlaps are common.

Not all employee job searches are bad. For employees who are underperforming or poorly suited, the practice can open up a mutually beneficial exit plan. Royal advises managers to look at which employees would be particularly hard to replace or whose exits would be disruptive, and to keep a close and personal eye on them, providing opportunities for them and their teams.

Porter notes that managers often forget an easy step to tamp down unnecessary anxiety: updating all employees on how the company is doing. This includes articulating where the company is headed and individuals’ positions on that trajectory. “You need to be sober and real,” he says.