If you haven't heard the term "breadcrumbing" as it relates to employees, here's a hint: it doesn't have anything to do with Hansel and Gretel trying to find their way home.
Breadcrumbing means giving employees just a taste of what's to come — crumbs — to keep them on the payroll and wanting more. When it comes to learning, breadcrumbing could be the promise of upskilling that never pans out, a wide variety of training resources no one is really interested in or just enough learning to keep staff members able to do their job, but not a bit more.
Employees are quickly realizing breadcrumbs are not a satisfactory meal, experts said. Instead, they're looking for employers that value them and their contributions today and are willing to invest in their future growth. Organizations that think they can eke by with the barest of learning opportunities often find staffers moving on.
Providing training for the work that's being performed today is critical to the business, but training that allows the employee to grow beyond their role, within or outside the company, is what staff members are looking for in an organization.
Give employees space to grow
Communication is key to prevent breadcrumbing from becoming a problem, Joyce Durst, CEO of Growth Acceleration Partners, told HR Dive.
"To avoid breadcrumbing, you need to have consistent and intentional conversations with your employees to understand how they are feeling, what they are learning and where they want to be in their careers," Durst said.
Her firm conducts regular one-on-ones with employees and asks a series of questions to ensure they're inspired, engaged and pursuing a path that they're truly excited about. If an employee answers "no" to a question, it results in an immediate effort to set up a plan to outline goals, she said. "Listen to your employees and give them the freedom to design their unique career path."
Plans need to look beyond just individual goals too and connect to broader company goals and priorities.
"One of the most common mistakes I see in employee communications is when leaders leave out the 'big picture' or assume that everyone is connected on the strategy," Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Visier told HR Dive in an email.
Doing so can ensure employees are busy and focused on the day-to-day tasks that can often be removed from the dialogue in the C-suite, he noted. "Effective leaders connect 'everyday' decisions to a north star — connecting the dots effectively in a language that everyone understands," Rubenstein said.
It's also important for HR teams to define career growth within their organizations, Tania Luna, co-CEO of LifeLabs Learning, said in an email. "Everyone has a different implicit expectation," she said. "Take a stance!"
One of LifeLab's clients ensures candidates and employees know growth means taking on new challenges, skills and experiences to create more opportunities for them inside and outside the company. This is more like rock climbing than ladder climbing, Luna said. "The funny thing is when we see companies and managers acknowledge that employees can and should collect transferable skills that are meaningful outside of your organization, people are less likely to leave."
How to make sure you offer more than crumbs
Luna suggests using the "3Es model" and offer deliberate development opportunities for education (learning knowledge), experience (learning by doing), and exposure (learning from others).
"Make sure your L&D, HR team, and/or managers know how to guide employees to pick an area of growth and track their progress," she said, noting that employers might also share a template for individual development plans and career portfolios to help employees track accomplishments, skills and milestones. Managers should be skilled in coaching and providing feedback, Luna said.
Durst suggests technical skills training, soft skills coaching, mentorship and career coaching, because these areas "are not just focused on technical education — it's about helping people find meaning and purpose in their work," she said. Lack of engagement will lead to long-term internal and external impacts, Durst added: "Your employees will be less productive, you'll lose great talent and your company's reputation will suffer."
Learning programs should be connected and relevant to the growth strategy of the company — not just a trendy personal development topic, according to Rubenstein. "Help employees connect what they have to be good at with what the company needs for success," he said. The real goal should be to tap into an employee's motivation to learn and apply their new knowledge, he added. Employers may want to reinforce this approach with 1-to-1 career development discussions that are specific about personal growth, team contribution and company success.
Connect the dots
It's recommended that HR teams take an L&D program approach instead of a project approach, per Luna. Employers can show employees their organizations' career growth systems — not disorganized junk drawers of random options. For example, an employer might create a visual of its development curriculum over time (e.g., first four months of onboarding, year one, year two, essentials, electives, development milestones, shadowing and role rotation opportunities).
"Even if you don't have clear career paths available (who does anymore?)," Luna said, "show employees how they can grow by collecting new skills, experiences, and even professional relationships."
Rubenstein believes employees want an authentic connection. L&D pros often create well-intended, high-quality opportunities for learning meant to scale across the company, he said, but workers need to be connected to individual goals by someone each of them knows and trusts.
"Learning is a partnership," Rubenstein said, "someone has to recognize that you committed to learn and then be your accountability partner for growth, change and feedback. This is why having an open, honest dialogue with your manager or mentor becomes so important."
While the company and manager may work to provide access and avenues to growth, the responsibility for development ultimately lies with the employee, Luna said, and this should be communicated early and often.
Employers should also give employees resources so that they can take the driver's seat, she added, including an individual development plan template, learning budget, success criteria for their role or questions they can use to pull for feedback and learn more about other people's roles and responsibilities. From there, employees can take growth wherever they choose, Luna said.