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Editorial Team
25 Sep 2019



Why Breadcrumbing can Destroy the Employee-Employer Relationship

learning and development

Not just a dating phenomenon, breadcrumbing is very real in the workplace, and employers, as well as employees, need to sit up and take notice

In the famous fairy tale Hansel and Gretel written by the Brothers Grimm, as Hansel and Gretel follow their parents into the woods, Hansel leaves a trail of bread crumbs behind, hoping to follow the trail back to their home. It is a different matter that the tactic did not work, as birds eat up the crumbs and the kids are lost in the woods, at the mercy of the powers that be.

So breadcrumbing is about fairy tales?

Well – not just that. The Macmillan Dictionary defines breadcrumbing as “in online dating, sending messages which suggest that you're still interested in someone, when in fact you're very unlikely to want to meet or have a relationship with them”.

This is commonly seen in relationships. You may know someone in a relationship that is headed nowhere, and your friend is continually complaining about his or her partner. When advised to let go of the relationship as the “significant other” is simply stringing them along, the said friend ignores – often angrily – the advice; yet, months later, they would have indeed bitterly broken off from that relationship, and carried along with baggage that leaves them cynical about relationships in general.

Umm… breadcrumbing is about relationships, then.

Again – not just that. Breadcrumbing is not just limited to personal relationships but is fast becoming a common workplace phenomenon. In the context of your place of employment, breadcrumbing refers to giving employees a taste, a sense, a promise of what lies in store for them in the future. This includes praising them, and hinting about possible promotions, raises, or projects so that employees stay in line without actually getting anything. The idea is to keep them tempted to put in their best and keep them wanting more.

Does it really happen in the workplace?

It sure does, and in more than one form, too. Take a look at the examples below:

  • A promise to upskill the employee, but that chance never panning out
  • A wide variety of training resources that are never really used
  • Just the bare minimum or basic learning shared to keep employees able to do their job; not a bit extra
  • Stringing out a candidate in a long-drawn hiring process
  • Being told how good the work done is, and dropping hints about promotions, raises or new work opportunities that do not materialize
  • The promise of moving from your cubicle to your own cabin, which never comes to be
  • Praise from colleagues up to and including the time you are of use to them, and being dropped like a hot potato otherwise

That sounds unfair! Why does it happen?

It is not fair as such; it has its reasons, though. These could include:

  • A boss unsure of your worth, abilities, and potential, and seeking to motivate you
  • The perception that you are not really management material but you are needed to do the hard, unglamorous work
  • Corporate plans that do not include you
  • Simply, an incompetent manager

So maybe I or someone I know is being breadcrumbed but does not know it! Any tell-tale signs that could help?

Of course, senior management will not tell you that you are being breadcrumbed, so you need to watch your own back and keep a lookout. Keep the following in mind:

  • Do rewards come only when you are almost burned out or just when you are about to quit?
  • Does communication about pay hikes, promotions, or work tasks come without discussion?
  • Maybe you get just enough work to keep you busy, but not with the risk (for management) of you doing something totally new
  • Management does not encourage you to follow your new proposals, but requires you to stay on the track they have designed
  • Are promotions or hikes routinely dangled but never actually given?

It sounds bad – surely there is nothing good about it.

There are a few positives to breadcrumbing, though – it is not all bad. If the trail of crumbs does lead to tangible positives within reasonable time frames, it is still acceptable. Good communication with your team leaders or your senior management is essential for them to understand your motivation and their need to follow through on their assurances.

According to B Lynn Ware, an industrial/organizational psychologist, “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 behavior.” In fact, good managers use behavioral reinforcement to develop their team members through rewards and recognition.

That does not make it good!

Of course, it does not! There are serious negatives to the practice of breadcrumbing, which include those given below:

  • When the hints of good things do not materialize into reality, employees lost trust and could look for greener pastures
  • Top talent has a range of opportunities available. According to the 2018 Employee Retention Report by the Work Institute, an employee research company, 40% of all turnover in the US in 2017 was of employees who were not even a year into their current employment
  • The same report suggests that 33% of the base pay of an employee is what the employer stands to lose as costs if that employee is disillusioned and chooses to move on
  • Organizations are often mistaken in their belief that the barest of learning opportunities will suffice to entice employees; the latter do tend to move on, after a while

True that! What should be done about it?

The quicker employers realize that mere breadcrumbing with no rewards does not work and will not work, the sooner the problem can be solved. Some of the steps for employers to take are suggested below:

  • Communication is the key. Employers must continually engage with employees to know their thoughts, their plans, and their learnings.
  • Plans for employees need to not just look at the employees themselves but also connect with the wider, bigger company goals
  • Explain clearly and unambiguously to employees what they are expected to do to be eligible for growth in the company, and follow through if and when they deliver
  • Offer opportunities for education, experience, and exposure. Include soft skills, mentorship, and career coaching so that you help employees find meaning and purpose in their work
  • Give employees the resources they need to grow, such as a development plan, a learning budget, clear success criteria, and more

Employees can also take some action – rather, they must! As an employee, you would do well to keep a note of the following:

  • Set expectations and share your goals, seek feedback, and discuss areas of improvement
  • If you are on track for a promotion, outline the timeline clearly with your reporting manager
  • If you feel the discussion regarding your growth is not really progressing, have specific examples at hand to demonstrate your growth and value

Remember, then, that not all breadcrumbs are bad – they could be good if they are leading somewhere. If not, then maybe it is time to seek a new path!

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