Job Security Is An Illusion: Real Security Comes From Continuous Reinvention

Graduation season is fast approaching. I am privileged to be having critical conversations about their first jobs with my students.

What brings me joy: My students are receiving job offers and, in some cases, deciding among multiple offers.

What makes me cringe: Having “reality check” conversations. I have been working in the U.S. for 30+ years and have grown accustomed to certain norms as par for the course – “at-will employment” being one of them. I feel like I am the one breaking the bad news to my students.

According to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at-will means that “an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability. Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.” NCSL further stated that “the U.S. is one of a handful of countries where employment is predominantly at-will. Most countries throughout the world allow employers to dismiss employees only for cause.” Among the reasons given for the predominance of at-will presumption is the belief that “both employers and employees favor it over job security.” This may be all good and well in theory, but for someone new to the professional world, this reeks of a submission of all control to their employers. Here is the typical conversation I have with my students on the subject :

Student: “You mean to tell me that employers can dismiss me at any time, without notice and without any explanation?”

Me (taking a deep breath): “Yes,” watching their expression of disbelief.

I then continue with my meager attempt at softening the blow: “In reality, though, that is the exception rather than the rule. Remember, there are always reasons behind these drastic moves, be it a downturn in business or your own unsatisfactory job performance, but legally, they aren’t obligated to provide a reason to you for your dismissal.”

Their raised eyebrows suggest a question that is not voiced: “How is this fair?” I watch the loss of a part of their innocence right in front of my eyes.  During these poignant moments, I ask myself: “What have we (the adults) done to our kids?” I am reminded of the inauguration speech by President Zelensky of Ukraine – about hanging up our kids’ photos rather than a President’s photo and to “look at them each time you are making a decision.” Business leaders, this practice is affecting YOUR kids! O.K. even if you don’t have kids and do not care about this issue, you do care about your employee engagement, don’t you? Know that, with this practice, your employees’ sense of engagement has been chipped away even before they report to work.

I am not here to engineer a change in this longstanding practice per se; that is a much bigger project. I am, however, sharing some of my lessons learned as a resource to these young professionals. This is the core lesson I have learned on the subject throughout my career: Whether at-will employment is present in your job offer letter/contract or not, job security does not really exist. Before you freak out, please hear me out.

Employees somehow assume a fair trade exists between their hard work and a sense of benevolence from the employers. The benevolence is assumed to translate into job security at all costs. But the “trade” only goes so far. First, even the most benevolent employers aren’t immune to changes in their industry or fluctuations in economic cycles. Job loss often happens due to reasons out of the employers’ control. This scenario is close to home now as we fight our way out of a two-year pandemic.

Furthermore, the fair “trade” between employers and employees takes place when the employees have been paid for work rendered. Should the termination of an employment relationship take place, it is the termination of “future” relationships, not a negation of past contributions or relationships. For the employees, it is far more productive to take the energy required to breed resentment and use it instead to invest in one’s future career. 

But how? These are the lessons I have learned:

  • Liberate yourself from the expectation that your employer will “give” you job security. They can’t, and, in some cases, they won’t even if they could. Your career is far more secure if you are able to take the control into your own hands.
  • A job does not a career make. A fulfilling career is one that looks like a colorful puzzle. Every job contributes to making this puzzle your own. Aspire to keep adding pieces to your puzzle. The more colorful your puzzle is, the more attractive you are as a candidate. Clinging on to a job for dear life works against you. Think about career sustainability, not job security.
  • Have yourself a job and a half. My students look at my LinkedIn profile and ask me how I was able to move from being a linguist to HR, to Operations, to Product Management, to Sales & Marketing, and to Technology. (Refer to the previous point about creating a colorful puzzle!) They wonder if I just decided from one day to the next to move to a new role. Of course not! My SOP was: achieve excellence on my current job and look for opportunities to contribute to ancillary functions outside of my current role – expanding my knowledge and network while also adding value for colleagues. Even if pivoting among distinctly different roles isn’t your cup of tea, the point is clear – the goal is to not fall prey to a false sense of (job) security and stop evolving. To achieve true security requires study and work outside of your regular job duties.
  • Money won’t buy you happiness, but money can give you options. Other than the disbelief and self-doubt that follow an unexpected job loss, the most pressing issue is how to absorb the shock of financial disruption. Financial planners generally suggest that you put aside 6 months’ worth of living expenses in an emergency fund. To be clear, this fund does not remove or diminish the probability of job loss, but it does give you peace of mind. Better yet, it helps to give you the courage to take on risks when contemplating a change of direction. I will be forever grateful to my first boss, Mark, who encouraged me to “save until it hurts.” Many of my students have benefited from this mantra.

I know! I know! It’s odd to have someone who had worked for the same employer for 25 years talk about “job security” as a myth. Here’s another way to look at it: I continuously sought to reinvent myself to ensure my career sustainability. The fact that it took place in the same company was incidental. If circumstances had been different, I would have achieved the same thing through multiple employers. Employees are like actors in a show and the employers provide the stage. By all means, regardless of the stage, put on a good performance, always. At the same time, be ready to go on a new stage when the time comes. Don’t let the stage limit you. Don’t let at-will employment happen to you; be the one to exercise it. Keep. Reinventing. Yourself. Keep. Shining.

Winnie Heh

Career Advisor


Get to The Point – How to Ace Interviews With Senior Executives

PC: Rogan Public Relations

True story: A few years ago, one of my students, who was about to graduate with an MA degree in Conference Interpretation, did a series of mock interviews with me in preparation for a position as an executive assistant to the US CEO of a large global company headquartered in Asia. After three interviews, the moment of truth came – she was shortlisted to be interviewed by the US CEO. With a reputation of a sharp mind and high standards, working for him was such an intense experience that his executive assistants typically rotated out every two years. The flip side of that is working for a boss like this prepares you for anything that comes your way thereafter.

After the big day I asked my student to tell me how the interview went. She told me that after each of her answers, the CEO would say:  “OK. Give me the same information, but summarize it. Cut the length by half.” She followed the direction. He then said: “OK. Now cut the length by half again.” To make a long story short, she got the job, crediting her training as an interpreter. On a side note, summarizing while retaining the meaning of the message is one of the key skills taught in interpretation training. This is a beautiful story of leveraging one’s transferrable skills.

Back to interviewing. I had never heard of this interviewing approach described, but it made sense to me. What is the most valuable resource of a senior executive? Time. He needed his executive assistant, who would often be his “gatekeeper” of information, to be highly skilled at grasping and articulating the essence of issues.

I thought of the CEO interview story recently when Jingfei Shi (MATLM 2022) scheduled a mock interview with me specifically in preparation for the final round of an interview cycle – this time with the VP of the company she was applying to. In anticipation of this mock interview, I thought back to my VP days. Do I think C-suite executives approach interviews differently from the frontline hiring managers? The short answer is yes. To be clear, accurate and concise communication shouldn’t be reserved for senior executives. Communication best practices should be utilized at all times regardless of where your counterpart is on the org chart, but I do think the more responsibilities one has in an organization, the more information they need to acquire, process, synthesize, frame, and articulate. As such, they do tend to have higher standards in the precision of messaging. Here was the advice I gave to Jingfei:

  1. Take a position on the question you are asked. Know the point you are trying to make. Sounds easy, right? Not so. If you don’t know what message you are trying to convey, you are just filling space with words. Be clear about the point you are trying to make.
  2. Get to the point. Start your response with the “punch line” – the key point(s) you are trying to make – and then use stories or measurable outcomes to support and elaborate on your point(s). This is the best practice I follow even when I am not interviewing for a job. When I approach colleagues, especially the busy ones, I always start with a “bottom line statement” – explaining what information I am about to share, what questions I am asking, or what actions I want them to take. This way, the communication is framed and the listener is oriented.
  3. Brevity is your friend. If you can make a point in one sentence, don’t take two. I get it. When you are nervous during an interview, it’s easy to fall prey to the perception that saying more exhibits knowledge and therefore strength. However, rambling on is exactly what you shouldn’t do.

In case you are wondering, Jingfei was offered and has accepted the position and she graciously shared her learnings from this experience:

  • The VP’s questions were broader than localization with emphasis on technology and business acumen. I felt that showcasing how I think about and think through issues was as important as the “what” in my answers.
  • The most helpful things I did in my preparation:
    • Winnie Heh’s suggestions on “get to the point” when answering questions. I kept answers within 3 minutes and referred back to the key points the interviewer made.
    • Eva Klaudinyova’s class on Leadership. I quickly mapped the VP to a visionary leader. This info may or may not have been useful during the interview, but when I start working in the team, I believe it’s going to be useful at some point.
    • I drafted 5 questions and consulted with professors beforehand. I asked smart questions to let them know that I cared about what they do.
  • Now looking back, I think I could have done more research on the company’s product performance and on their product offerings in various regional markets. This way I could have had a more intelligent discussion with the VP when he shared their market expansion plans.

The job interview is an opportunity to exhibit the quality of your thinking through the quality of your talking. First things first: focus on the thinking and the talking will follow. I’d like to end with a saying by Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” (For more than 20 years, I actually had this saying on a small piece of paper pasted to my monitor as a daily reminder.) I think this is what the CEO in the story above was looking for, and for that matter, what most hiring managers are looking for, too.

Winnie Heh

Career Advisor