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?