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


2 Responses

  1. If it weren’t for at-will employment, my life would be much worse today. Every dismissal resulted in new opportunities and further growth. It got to the point where I’d be excited to see what the next position would bring. It was scary, but not life-and-death scary. More like rollercoaster scary.

    The funny thing was that sometimes a second-tier company would fire me, and then a first-tier company would hire me, both for the same reason! At the worse company I didn’t “go through proper channels”, while the great company said I “always take the initiative”.

    Now I’ve been full-time freelance for 15 years, and I find that much more secure than having a job.

  2. In my opinion, job security is really about well-being, however that is defined. When our well-being is attached to something external to us, we make ourselves vulnerable to fluctuations in another’s decision making process. That is a lot of power to grant to someone else.

    If we know that, no matter what, we will not only be ok but also survive/thrive, then a job loss, while uncomfortable, is not devastating. It becomes a bump in the road vs a sinkhole.

    There’s a saying in English – don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – and, throughout my career and life, I have seen the wisdom in that. One day you can be at the top and then the next day you are not. That’s life…as my parents used to tell me…be prepared.

    At the end of the day, it’s a choice of how you look at it:

    *It’s not fair vs it’s time for something new
    *Why me? vs Why not me?

    The “why me?” is disempowering and stands in the way of what could possibly be your next great adventure. Resiliency is what contributes to well-being not one job that lasts forever.

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