Skip to main content Skip to main navigation
Skip to access and inclusion page Skip to search input

Are you being professionally breadcrumbed?

02:48pm October 11 2019

Breadcrumbing at work might involve a promotion that never materialises, experts say. (Getty)

During a job interview at a finance company in Sydney, UX designer Steve Molloy was assured that his potential new workplace had a flexible work culture. An hour’s lunch break was fine, working hours weren’t regimented and flexible working reigned.  

“I was also told that I could listen to music at my desk and socialise, because it was a fun and collaborative environment,” he recalls. 

However, soon after accepting the job, Molloy discovered a completely opposite culture from what he was expecting. And it only continued. 

“I took a 20-minute lunch break and it was frowned upon. Everyone was like, ‘where's he gone? Has anyone seen him?’ Just to make a big deal of it. I got the hint,” he says. 

“(Then) when I made a telephone call to my wife at lunchtime, I got a few strange looks. I also had to be there by eight in the morning. It was such a disconnect between what I was promised and the reality. I think they just wanted me in the door and they knew what I wanted to hear.” 

Molloy had been professionally breadcrumbed. 

Like “ghosting”, the dating term is now being applied to the workplace context – and it will resonate with anyone who has been led on with a trail of “crumbs”. It might be a promotion that never seems to materialise no matter how you perform or a colleague promising to return a favour but failing to follow through. 

And it’s come to Australia after making headlines overseas in recent years. 

“When promises are made about what the future holds and there is a breach of those expectations, it is naturally very disappointing,” says Peter Gahan, a professor of management at the University of Melbourne.

“It affects trust, a person’s willingness to go the extra mile or even to stay with an organisation.” 

According to LinkedIn research last year, career development is valued by employees more than ever before with 94 per cent saying they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development. It added employees were motivated to learn by “manager relationships and opportunities for upward mobility”.

Thus, wide-spread breadcrumbing could be toxic for organisations at a time of rapid technological change and slower economic growth. Deloitte’s 2019 human capital report – which highlights how businesses are responding to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – argues workplace cultures of the future must support “continuous learning, incentives that motivate people to take advantage of learning opportunities, and a focus on helping individuals identify and develop new, needed skills”. 

Professor Gahan says understanding why breadcrumbing is occurring will help determine how to respond to it.

Employees should set out specific developmental opportunities required to progress. (Getty)

“A manager may not like having difficult conversations about performance and basically tells porky pies to avoid it. It is their way of managing the troops as opposed to really trying to develop a degree of engagement,” he says. “In this case, being brave and voicing your frustration may just elicit more of the same behaviour.”

If a manager fails to come through with the flagged promotion, experts say it’s important to set out the specific developmental opportunities required to progress and avoid open-ended goals that are not time-specific. If possible, look for development opportunities beyond the role and consider a lateral move within the organisation.

But it could be that the actual opportunities have been misrepresented.

“When many people are vying for a position, it’s what I call a ‘promotion tournament’,” Gahan says. “As you as you climb the greasy pole, there are fewer opportunities to be promoted and the competition gets more intense. We’ve got to be realistic that this is the nature of some hierarchies, and not allow ourselves to be overly led on by false promises.”

Without realising it, we may ourselves be guilty of laying down the odd crumb to others. 

Flippant replies to earnest requests – such as “I’ll see what I can do” – may elicit higher hopes than we realise.

“A good supervisor and team member is conscious of their words,” says Gahan. “It isn’t what you say that’s important, but how it is heard.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

Browse topics