7 Signs You’re Being Breadcrumbed at Work (and How to Deal)

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
April 16, 2024 at 8:39PM UTC
Breadcrumbing — it's the act of leaving small crumb trails to string you along.
You may have heard the term breadcrumbing in respect to relationships, when one partner leads on the other partner. But breadcrumbing happens in the workplace, too.
If you find yourself stuck in what too often feels like a deadend job,  but you feel enticed to stick around because of an ever-illusive future, you might be a victim of breadcrumbing. Here are nine red flags that your manager is breadcrumbing you at work (and how to deal with it).

1. Your manager makes empty promises for future growth opportunities.

Your manager might have told you about all of the endless opportunities available to you when you first interviewed for this job — and that's perhaps precisely what you took the job in the first place. Maybe they offered you a lot of travel opportunities. Maybe they swore that, if you hit your monthly goals, you'd be earning a certain amount of money. Or perhaps they spoke of an alluring benefits package that just hasn't become available yet. Whatever the case, if your manager is always making empty promises that never seem to come to fruition, it may be a sign that you're being breadcrumbed at work.
Perhaps it's wise to write down the opportunities that you discuss with your manager, and have them on record for the next time you have a one-on-one meeting. It's easy to forget what was promised to you, when and under what circumstances, but having a tangible list to which you can refer can be helpful. If that list isn't met, it may be time to find another employer to give you those opportunities (or make them for yourself as an entrepreneur!).

2. Your manager vaguely tells you that, so long as you hit certain goals, you'll be rewarded.

If your manager is super vague about what kinds of rewards you'll receive for performing highly, it may be because they don't want to be or can't be locked into actually giving you that reward. They might not have the biggest budget, for example, and so promising you a certain bonus isn't necessarily doable. But what they can do is try to keep you around anyway by promising you that you'll receive something for doing well.
It's a good idea to sit down for a private conversation with your manager to discuss you short- and long-term goals. Having a written contract that details exactly what's expected of you, and exactly what's expected of them in return, can be helpful in holding both of you accountable. It also clearly sets expectations without any guessing games. If your manager is unwilling to do this, it may be an issue you want to take up with your human resources department.

3. Your manager repeatedly passes you up for promotions for which you're qualified.

If you're indeed qualified for a promotion, but your manager continues to outsource and hire new talent or, rather, picks someone else for the promotion — but continues to tell you "next time" — it may be a red flag that you're being breadcrumbed at work. This is especially true if they insist that they want to see you prove yourself a bit more, and grant you even more work (without the title change or raise) in order to land that promotion.
If you continue to see tangible growth in your performance, take on more work and you have the proof to make a case for yourself, but you're not growing in the company, it may be time to leave to move up elsewhere.

4. Your manager suggestively talks about their own impending retirement.

If your manager is always talking about their own retirement, which would leave a void for you to perhaps fill, but has been around for years, they may be breadcrumbing you. Retiring is hard, and it takes a lot of people much longer than they might have expected. So, of course, this may be innocent. But if your manager is always swearing up and down that you'll be at the helm "soon enough" and whatever that means isn't actually soon enough for you, it may be wise to start looking at your other options.

5. Your manager notoriously rewards burnout behavior.

If your manager is notorious for encouraging burnout behavior — oveworking yourself with consistently long and odd hours, not taking time off, putting work above your health and family all the time, etc. — this may be a red flag. Perhaps your manager is always tooting your horn, telling you how much they respect your strong work ethic and reliability. But this becomes dangerous when their praise keeps you working beyond boundaries, burning yourself out.
If it comes down to it, you might want to have an honest conversation with your manager about your need to utilize your time off and focus on other priorities, as well. After all, you're given time off for a reason.

6. Your manager always thanks you for work that's not part of your job.

Again, if your manager is always thanking you for your hard work and for being a team player, it could feel rewarding. But if they're thanking you for doing work that doesn't belong to you — particularly office housework that detracts from your actual job — then they may be reinforcing and encouraging you to take on this work. Of course, it's nice to be recognized for others' slack you pick up and the little things you do to lend a helping hand, but if these kinds of tasks become expected of you and you continue to do them for the praise, you might be being breadcrumbed.
You might want to consider steering away from these small tasks and focusing more on your work at hand. If your manager or someone else asks you why you're not able to help, or penalizes you for it, you can make a case for yourself by demonstrating the work that you actually have to do and sharing how not getting to this work will do the company more harm. If your work is not respected, you might want to find that respect somewhere else.

7. Your manager consistently deflects your asks for a raise.

The reality is that women do ask for raises — they're just not given them nearly as often as men are. If your manager keeps deflecting your raise, blaming their inability to grant you one on something different every time, it could be a sign that you're being breadcrumbed in your career.
If you're not given a raise when it's deserved (after a reasonable amount of time and effort, of course), you might want to start looking for a new job. Even if you don't actually want to take a new job, coming to your manager with an offer and allowing them to make a counter offer can get the ball rolling. Otherwise, it may be best to move on.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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