Introduction to Retention:  The Effects of “Breadcrumbing” in the Workplace

There are not many topics in the Recruitment and Retention industry that can trace their roots back to a television show, but we certainly have one of them today!  “Breadcrumbing,” while not a new trend, has received a new name and a new light shed on it because, of all things, of an episode of Love Island.  (If you’re like this author and unsure what Love Island is, it’s some kind of reality show?  Don’t worry, it won’t come up again!)  Initially associated with dating at its inception, “breadcrumbing” is where a romantic interest strings their partner along, not really investing the time and energy to take their person seriously and using them only for personal gain and satisfaction until they find someone they like “better.”  As stated above, while “breadcrumbing” is the new term for it, this practice has been around for ages.  However, how does this translate into a business setting?

In the simplest terms, “breadcrumbing” is using intermittent reinforcement to develop someone’s behavior.  In a work environment, this usually unfolds in one of two ways.  One is during the interview process, and this happens when a potential employee is hoping to come work for a company but is strung along without an offer for an extended period of time.  They are stuck waiting for an opportunity that someone has assured them of, but there is no forthcoming job offer to accept.  Secondly, “breadcrumbing” occurs within companies by management that promises, informally, raises or promotions to workers in exchange for a little more time and effort.  However, once the work is complete, employees are left without recompense, receiving only more promises of future financial or titular gains.  Both of these can lead to lower retention rates as employees fear they cannot trust their management team.    

“…Whistling and Following Bread Crumbs” 

Today’s workers expect a certain amount of engagement and development from their employers.  A 2018 survey from LinkedIn stated that a whopping 94% of employees would remain at their current job if they believed the management team was invested in their future.  With breadcrumbing, though, employees believe their managers are ready to work with them and build them up, up to a point.  However, when nothing ever happens, these same workers will begin to lose faith in their company.  According to an article by TopChro, there are several instances of breadcrumbing in the workplace that are fairly easy to spot. 

  • Management makes promises to upskill an employee, but then that promise never comes to fruition.
  • There are a wide variety of training materials available, but none of them are ever really used or even shown to new employees.
  • Training for new employees is kept to a bare minimum so that nothing extra can be done to go above and beyond.
  • Candidates are strung along in a drawn out hiring process.
  • Hints are dropped to employees for promotions or new opportunities, but these never materialize.
  • Praise is heaped on when an employee is needed to help with a project, but that same employee is ignored when their usefulness is worn out.

When it comes to why breadcrumbing happens, research has found three common denominators.  The first is that the management team is unsure of an employee’s abilities and potential.  If the team leader is not sure what their workers are capable of, then they will not push the team to their full potential.  Next, employees who do not appear to have a place in the overall corporate plan but are still needed for the difficult or menial tasks have a tendency to be breadcrumbed.  Finally, sometimes, an incompetent manager can be blamed for breadcrumbing.  If a boss doesn’t understand that they are stringing a potential worker along or making promises they can’t keep, then they may be unintentionally leaving breadcrumbs in their wake.

“When you settle for crumbs, you’ll always be starving.”

While breadcrumbing seems to have mostly negative connotations, there are a few positives to be found.  If an employer leaves breadcrumbs to motivate their employees and then follows through with a full meal, many workers will find that acceptable and stay with the leader.  TopChro says “good managers use behavioral reinforcement to develop their team members through rewards and recognition.”  However, there is a big difference between using these breadcrumbs for motivation, versus simply leading a worker on to keep them compliant and doing their job.  The first will set your team up for success, while the latter will send workers fleeing the business in droves, and, with a 2019 worker engagement report, 44% of employees feeling as if they do not have room to grow in their current companies, if these workers leave, they will stifle the growth of the business.    

If your office has a member of the management team that is leaving breadcrumbs all over the place, then there are a few steps to take to clean them up and, simultaneously, raise the retention rates.  As with most things, communication is the key to success.  Through communication and engagement, employers can show their employees that they do care about their workers’ progression, and that the team leaders are actively working to develop them.  Employers can pair this with meetings to show workers how they are planning to upskill them, but then they need to make sure they are following through with their plans and promises.  Sharing these ideas and how they fit in with the overarching goals for the business shows employees that they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and that their management team wants them to be a part of it for the foreseeable future.      


Meaghan Goldberg covers recruitment and digital marketing for Lionzone.  A Patterson, GA native, after graduating from both Valdosta State University and Middle Tennessee State University, Meaghan joined Lionzone in 2018 as a digital recruitment strategist before becoming the social media manager.



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