How to tell if you’re being ‘breadcrumbed’ at work

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Stop breadcrumbing me!

Our modern dating vocabulary is making its way into our work lexicon, and it’s bringing more life and colour to the way we describe our experiences. Have you ever been ghosted by a potential employer? Or have you ghosted them? Now, thanks to the latest series of the reality TV show Love Island, we have a new word for an old practice: breadcrumbing.

“Breadcrumbing is when you leave little bits of bread for someone. It’s a way of saying when you lead someone on,” explains Love Island host Caroline Flack. These small amounts of communication, encouragement or rewards ultimately might leave the recipient empty-handed.

Whether you’re being strung along in a drawn-out hiring process or your existing employer is leading you on, breadcrumbing gives you “just enough” to keep you on the line. You can see it when your manager drops hints about new projects, raises or promotions that may – or may not – ever materialise.

“Breadcrumbing is really a modern term for what we used to call intermittent reinforcement, which is one of the strongest ways to develop someone's behaviour,” says B Lynn Ware, an industrial/organisational psychologist and the CEO of a leadership consultancy in California. She explains that successful managers use behavioural reinforcement to develop their staff through appropriate and proportional recognition and rewards.

But what if they’re not actually using it for employee development? It may be because employers are not aware of the range of opportunities available for top talent. The 2018 Employee Retention Report by the Work Institute, an employee research company, found that in the US, 40% of all turnover in 2017 was of employees who quit within their first year of employment. This was up from 34% in 2016. According to the report, the rise in turnover shows that employees have greater flexibility to find better employment elsewhere.

Alternatively, “it could be that the employee is not considered top talent,” says Ware. “Those people don't get recognition when they deserve it, because the employer is hoping they leave on their own.” The Work Institute report identified that turnover costs employers, on average, 33% of the employee’s base pay. Perhaps this is why it seems better to string along a less-than-perfect employee rather than immediately undergo the costs of replacing them.

So how can you tell when you’re being breadcrumbed, and what should you do about it?

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Red flags to watch for


In a healthy workplace, feedback comes readily and regularly. Take stock of when you receive rewards or encouragement; is it only during times of peak burnout, or right when you’re ready to call it quits? An employer who only offers encouragement or rewards in response to challenges may be more concerned with avoiding turnover than actually developing you as an employee.


Stay vigilant of how your manager communicates rewards to you, as well. If they communicate messages, pay rises and promotions without discussion, it can show a lack of interest in employee development. Two-way communication and negotiation are essential.

A classic breadcrumbing tactic is giving someone just enough to keep them busy, without taking the risk of doing something totally new. So, consider how your managers reacts to your proposals for new projects or ideas. Are they encouraging you to explore these new avenues? Or are they requiring you to stay on the track they’ve designed for you?

Finally, one of the biggest red flags is when a company routinely dangles promotions or promises title changes without following through.

If they communicate messages, pay rises and promotions without discussion, it can show a lack of interest in employee development.

Establishing follow-through

Workers continue to expect more from their employers in terms of engagement and development. And savvy employers know that developing their employees’ careers cultivates loyalty. According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, which surveyed over 4,000 employees, managers, executives and talent developers, 94% of employees would stay at a job longer if it invested in their career.

So if you’re expecting your employer to go beyond empty promises and to facilitate your career development, set expectations. Ask your manager for feedback, discuss areas for improvement, and share your career goals with them. If you’re on track for a promotion, outline a clear track and timeline with your manager.

If the discussion is stalling, share specific examples of your contributions to the team. Explain how your personal skills development will benefit the company as a whole, so your manager can clearly see how it relates to the big picture.

Ultimately, your employer should keep their word and remain engaged in developing you as an asset. Frequent, transparent communication and commensurate rewards are a must – breadcrumbs, but the right kind.

“I don't think breadcrumbing is necessarily a bad thing. As long as the manager follows through on it,” says Ware. “Managers are trained to recognise talented employees and help them grow, and it should always come with follow through.”

If you find yourself picking up rewards and promises from your employer, just make sure the trail of breadcrumbs actually leads somewhere. If not, maybe it’s time to find a new path to follow.