If you have ever felt like you’ve been strung along at work with the promise of promotions, raises or career development, you’ll know it is a frustrating and exhausting experience.
‘Breadcrumbing,’ the act of leaving a small crumb trail to lead you along, first came to light as a phenomenon in the dating world, but it’s becoming increasingly common in the workplace too.
The term is usually applied to our romantic lives to describe being led on by someone, but you can also be the victim of breadcrumbing at work.
So what exactly is it – and how do you know if it is happening to you?
Breadcrumbing can take on many forms in a professional setting. For example, it is the manager who often praises you for your hard work and that they want to reward you for it with a promotion or a pay rise, but never follows through. Because of this, you may find yourself sticking around in a dead-end job – even though you don’t want to.
It can also happen before you even start a job. During the recruitment process, your prospective employer may have encouraged you to sign on the dotted line with the promises of travel opportunities, your own office or a certain amount of money if you hit your targets.
A few years on, though, and you’re still earning less than you were promised and you’ve not seen any of the perks your manager mentioned. There may be other reasons why – for example, if the company is unexpectedly struggling financially – but if your boss is always making empty promises, it may be a sign that you’re being breadcrumbed.
And if you are qualified for a promotion, but your boss continues to select other people or hire new staff members while reassuring you that you’ll be in line for a raise next time – it might be a sign too.
Breadcrumbing is basically the psychological term “intermittent reinforcement” – a conditioning schedule in which a reward is not administered every time the desired response is performed. Essentially, your employer offers you enough breadcrumbs to keep you interested and make sure you stick around, but these promises don’t actually come to fruition.
There are several reasons why employers breadcrumb staff. It might be that they are unsure of a worker’s skills or abilities, and want to push them and keep them motivated. A company may breadcrumb someone they don’t think is the perfect employee to keep them in the job, because recognise that the costs of replacing them are too high.
A manager may also just be manipulative and not really care about your career development or whether you are paid fairly – but want you to get on with the job.
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Whatever the reason for the breadcrumbing, it can have a seriously negative impact on employees. It can lead people to feel that their hard work is going unnoticed and unappreciated. And when you stay in a job under false pretences, it can feel like you’ve wasted time too. Breadcrumbing can lead to staff feeling demotivated, unsupported and, ultimately, making them more likely to look for other opportunities.
First, write down what you have been promised – a promotion, a raise, travel – so you have them on record. If your boss has been teasing you with these for a while, pin them down on it. Organise a meeting when you both have time to talk without interruptions so you can discuss your career progression.
Before you head into the meeting, make sure you are prepared. Bring evidence of what you have achieved with you and outline how this has benefited the company. It might be sales data, new clients or a successful project – whatever is it, make sure your manager is aware of your achievements. Share your career goals with them and explain how your personal development will help the business.
It can also help to ask your boss for feedback and to discuss areas for improvement. If you are in line for a promotion, make sure you have a clear path towards your next position and a rough timeline.
Ultimately, your manager should follow through on breadcrumbs if they want to keep you as an engaged, motivated member of the team. And if they aren’t going to keep to their promises, it might be time to move on.