You never want to think that your best employees are contemplating career options outside of your company. But in an uncertain economy that has seen layoffs and hiring slowdowns in recent months, it’s a strong bet that many of your workers are doing exactly that. Even if the pace of business at your company is robust, employees may still be wondering, “What if things suddenly change? What would I do?”


Even though Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that national unemployment is low—and rates are trending even lower for many roles in fields like accounting and finance—worrying about job security is natural in the current climate. Over the past few years, businesses and their workers have been hit with some major surprises. Still feeling that sting, or wary of experiencing it, many professionals are now trying to preemptively soften the blow of what might come next through “career cushioning.”


Career cushioning is the process of taking practical steps while you’re still employed to prepare for a job search should the need arise quickly. To put a finer point on it, employees make full use of the resources available to them—including from their company—to help them increase both their current value and future marketability as a professional.


To an employer, career cushioning might seem a bit self-centered. But it shouldn’t. Job security is never guaranteed, and serious professionals should be doing what it takes to invest in themselves in any economy. And workers engaging in career cushioning can actually benefit your business. Employers should acknowledge this trend and try the following strategies to make the most of it.


1. Understand where your employees are now—and where they want to be. Consider setting up one-on-one meetings with your team members, including remote staff, to discuss their career paths. Don’t ask outright if they’re actively creating a career contingency plan, though, as it will put them on the defensive. It will also make them worry that their job might be at risk.


Instead, tell them you want to know how they’re feeling about their current career situation and how (and if) they visualize their future unfolding with your organization. Some questions to raise during these conversations could include:


  • What are your career objectives for the next two to three years?
  • Do you want to stay in your current role or take a new direction?
  • Are you interested in taking on a leadership position someday?
  • Are there any personal skills or professional certifications you would like to acquire?


Even if an employee has shared their career aspirations with you before, confirm that they’re still working toward the same goals now. It’ll demonstrate that you want to stay attuned to their needs and expectations. Importantly, it gives you the opportunity to help the employee chart a course toward achieving those objectives at your organization and outline what the company is prepared to do to help support them.


2. Take stock of skills and experience needs across your team. One major objective of the career cushioning process is learning new skills that are in demand in the marketplace. Research suggests that the inability to learn new skills could prompt an employee to leave: In a recent Gallup poll of U.S. workers, nearly half (48%) of the respondents said they would switch to a new job if it meant they could access skills training.


So, why not take advantage of your employees’ increased desire to engage in training and professional development opportunities? It’s a win-win. Your workers will feel invested in and that they’re future-proofing their careers, while your business grows the skills it needs to compete today—and tomorrow.


Conduct an assessment to determine where skills gaps exist on your team. Should you increase capabilities in areas such as financial reporting, tax, or auditing? What about digital skills? Do you need to expand your team’s ability to work with cloud-based accounting software or train them on data analytics or visualization tools? What about certifications? Could your company offer financial support to employees who want to earn in-demand credentials?


Next, think about which people on your team are logical candidates for targeted training, either because of their current role or what they may have shared with you about their career goals. And don’t just focus on building up technical skills in your team. Present opportunities such as stretch assignments or innovation challenges, for enhancing soft skills and developing leadership abilities.


3. Step up succession planning. As your employees lay the groundwork for their career continuity, make sure you’re thinking about your company’s continuity too. If valued employees suddenly leave—or have to be let go for business reasons, do you have a viable succession plan to put into action fast?


It’s well worth the effort to think ahead: An orderly succession ensures that the departure of one or more critical employees remains a manageable event rather than an organizational crisis. It also helps to create a culture of professional development, enhances knowledge-sharing between existing leadership, and helps identify and retain future leaders.


While it’s important to create succession plans for major roles in your organization, avoid focusing only on top positions at the company. Creating succession plans for key employees at all levels helps to deepen your overall bench strength. It’s also an effective way to identify your rising stars. Plus, it will help surface skills gaps in your team, so you can provide appropriate training and development.


As you step up succession planning, think about what additional resources you could tap for vital skills in a crunch—or to handle noncore capabilities so your team can stay focused in a crisis. Contract professionals and managed solutions are two options to consider. Many leading organizations rely on these resources to keep work moving forward as they upskill and reskill team members and transition them into new roles.




Many professionals today are worried about the future. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly underscored how things beyond our control can create tremendous disruption. Career cushioning can help employees feel at least a little more confident that if their employment situation did change suddenly, they have a strong chance of landing on their feet or pivoting in a new direction quickly.


Accept that career cushioning is happening among your employees. Use this time when your employees are thinking a lot about their futures to engage with them and learn how they’re feeling and what they want. Use that insight—along with what you glean from a skills assessment—to align employees with training and development that can benefit them and benefit your company. Through these efforts, you can identify those employees who want to stay with your organization for the long term and perhaps even take the reins one day. 


For more on providing employees with personal and professional development opportunities, listen to IMA's Count Me In podcast featuring Sarah Rubenstein.


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