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Breadcrumbing at work: here’s how to cope if it happens to you

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi
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Breadcrumbing at work: how to know if you're a victim

Breadcrumbing isn’t something that just affects our dating lives.

It turns out breadcrumbing isn’t something that just affects our romantic lives – the modern dating trend has made its way into the workplace.

Even if you haven’t heard of breadcrumbing before, you might have seen it in action – it’s the little “crumbs” of affection your crush drops every so often when you think they’re out of your life, even though they have no intention of taking things further. Instead of pursuing the relationship and showing genuine interest in you, they’ll feed you little bits and pieces of attention every once in a while, to keep you on standby, just in case.

It can be damaging enough in our personal lives, but breadcrumbing - like gaslighting - can also be a part of our professional lives, making our work life dissatisfying and demoralising. Here’s how to recognise if you’re being breadcrumbed at work, and what you can do about it.

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What does breadcrumbing at work look like?

Professional breadcrumbing can take on many different forms, but the key is that it’s over a sustained period of time.

For example, it’s the boss who often drops hints about how good your work is and that they want to reward you for it - with a promotion or pay rise - but never actually follows through.

Or it’s the colleagues who start praising you just before they need your help with a piece of work, and then drop you until the next time you can be of use to them, at which point they’ll start talking to you again.

Breadcrumbing can even begin before you’ve started in a job. It’s the promises from a prospective employer about the great things you’ll get to do in a role, promises which continue after you’ve accepted the role but never quite become real.

If you're the victim of breadcrumbing at work, there are things you can do.
Breadcrumbing at work: If you’re the victim of breadcrumbing at work, there are things you can do.

What do I do if I’m the victim of breadcrumbing at work?

The first thing to do is identify the breadcrumbing and who the perpetrator is.

If it’s your boss, this can be tricky to deal with, but there are ways around it. If they’ve been dropping crumbs about a pay rise or promotion, pin them down on this. Get a time and date from your manager for an official meeting, and in your request be clear that you want to talk about career progression. Then, make sure that you’re thoroughly prepared - take in evidence of what you’ve achieved, the positive effects this has had on the company, and resist the urge to waffle when you’re in the meeting. Alice Olin and Phanella Mayall Fine of the Step Up Club also advise in their five-point plan for getting a pay rise that you build both your confidence and your personal brand.

If it’s colleagues who throw out breadcrumbs so that you can help them, be clear in your own mind about what you will and won’t do for them, and stick to this. Make sure you and they know exactly what is part of your job, and when it’s appropriate for you to step in and assist. And when you do help, take the credit for it - don’t let them push you out.

Finally, assess what it is about these people that is keeping you hooked. Does their praise make you feel better at your job? If so, try to own your work. Keep a list of your achievements, treat yourself when you complete a big project or do something at work that scares you, and don’t be so self-deprecating. If you start to make yourself feel like you do when you get a bit of praise from a breadcrumber, soon you won’t be affected by them.

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What if the breadcrumbing continues?

At a certain point, it might become clear that the breadcrumber in your life has no intention of picking up after themselves, and will continue with their behaviour.

It’s at this point that you have to think about exactly what it is you want from your job, and whether the breadcrumber’s behaviour is something you can put up with in order to achieve your goals.

As Jenny Body OBE, the first female president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, told Stylist: “I have now realised that your career is in your own hands. No one else cares as much about it as you do. Consider your work life balance and think about what you are willing to sacrifice and compromise then get out and do it.”

Images: Getty / Unsplash / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise

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Sarah Shaffi

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