HR Query

What Is NATO Applying? How The Dating Trend Is Coming to the Workplace

If you haven’t heard of NATO dating – which means people dating are “not attached to an outcome” but rather open to all connections – you may soon get wind of it in your workplace as NATO applying, according to CEO/founder of Rising Team and Stanford lecturer Jennifer Dulski.

“With many employers breaking trust lately – as seen through so many mass layoffs – job seekers have turned to applying to jobs without the need for attachment or any specific outcome,” Dulski shared with HR Daily Advisor. “This isn’t being done as a defensive stance, though, but more so as a protective stance. And it’s not only for people who have been laid off, but also for those who are still working.”

In this week’s HR Query, Dulski discusses this trend, why she thinks it’s happening, who is doing it most, and more.

What is NATO applying? Where did this term come from?

JD: The term “NATO applying” is an extension of NATO dating – a trend we’ve seen from Gen Z on TikTok where people are prioritizing the dating journey over the outcome or relationship it leads to. People are applying to jobs with this mentality, going through application processes without getting too attached to the roles or companies. 

Why do you believe this trend is popping up?

JD: NATO applying is happening because businesses have been doing a lot to break employees’ trust. Companies are promising flexible work arrangements and then mandating strict RTO policies, having highly profitable earnings reports and still laying off thousands of workers as a cost-cutting measure, or saying they will conduct one round of layoffs and then having several. These actions are all making it hard for employees to feel comfortable getting attached to their jobs or the companies where they work. As a reaction, people are applying to jobs where they are not attached to the long-term outcome, but rather are focused on what they can get out of a job in the short term, whether that’s money, learning, benefits, etc. This can make workers feel like they are reclaiming a sense of control because if it doesn’t work out, they won’t be as hurt or upset in the end. 

Are employers, HR teams, or managers at fault for this? Is there anything they should be doing differently to stop it?

JD: In general, it’s a combination of executive leadership and managers who are at fault for the trend of NATO applying. The C-suite is responsible for making high-level choices that break trust – like whether to cut headcount or enforce an in-office working environment. Overwhelmed middle managers also play a role in NATO applying when they don’t properly support their teams. If a company fails to build highly qualified, empathetic leaders within the organization, that can cause low attachment and spur a movement of NATO applying.

Is there a risk to workers or job seekers who are engaging in NATO applying? If so, what is it?

JD: Risk of NATO applying to workers is similar to what we saw with quiet quitting. If you are too unattached, your performance may suffer, and you won’t be successful. That said, there is an important distinction to make between quiet quitters and NATO appliers. NATO appliers aren’t attached to an end point but are invested in the journey, so if they stay dedicated to their growth and development, they have the potential to be strong performers anyway. So, it’s possible to engage in this trend and be successful on an individual level. However, if a company has too many of this type of worker, collaboration can suffer because employees who are each focused on themselves won’t be able to work as effectively as part of a team and may put the company mission on the back burner. 

Where are you seeing this happen most? Is it in a specific geography, a certain industry, or only for Gen Z or Millennials?

JD: We are mostly seeing this trend with Gen Z, as this generation is also the group that’s engaging in NATO dating. Because this group came of age in the workplace during the pandemic, they have become more aware of risks and self-protective as it pertains to their careers and finances. 

Anything else I didn’t ask yet that I should know?

JD: NATO applying is a risk for companies because low engagement can lead to decreased productivity. (Gallup’s 2023 Global State of the Workplace Report shows workers who are not engaged or are disengaged cost the world $8.8 trillion in lost productivity.) Companies must find fast and efficient ways to build tighter connections and engagement, and this is possible even with NATO appliers. Just like in a romantic relationship, where you can create increased attachment by understanding and responding to a partner’s needs, that is true in the workplace as well. The better managers understand and support the goals and preferences of their employees, the more they can help them feel valued and build attachment to the team and the company. Creating a supportive, people-focused work environment is critical to making people feel connected and attached, and to curbing the NATO applying trend.

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