14 Jul 2023

How to handle being ghosted at work

We’re all familiar with ghosting in the world of online dating – the practice of abruptly ending all communication with someone without any elaboration or explanation. This kind of behaviour now seems to have spread into the world of work, where it is manifested in several ways:

• Hiring new employees

The recruitment process is fraught with ghosting opportunities. At the most basic level, many employers never respond to unsuccessful candidates, even after shortlisting and interviewing. More troublingly, there is growing evidence that employers and recruiters are ghosting successful candidates, confirming that they would like to offer them the job and then dropping all contact with them. Presumably, this is the sign of a change of heart – a better candidate has come along or the requirement for a new employee has been reassessed. But employers who do not see the necessity of communicating this fact to candidates are causing a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and upset.

• Interviewing for jobs

It works both ways, and potential employees are quite capable of ghosting employers. In a job market where there are growing labour shortages, employees find themselves in a powerful position. It is quite common for them to agree to an interview and then simply not show up because they have had a more attractive offer, or perhaps they have had a change of heart and decided not to move jobs. Again, they fail to see that it is only polite to notify the potential employers of their decision, but instead leave them hanging, wasting time and resources.

• No-shows

A new employee is offered a job, receives all the relevant paperwork, and confirms a start date. Then, on the agreed first day of work, they simply don’t show up. Maybe they have changed their mind, or received a better offer, but there is no attempt to contact the employer and inform them that they will have to re-start the recruiting process.

• Abandoning ship

We’re all familiar with the notion of the good resignation: the carefully worded letter, the interview with management, the constructive notice period when responsibilities are handed over and everyone works together to ensure a smooth transition, the convivial leaving party. Imagine dispensing with all this and simply not turning up at work ever again, with no formal resignation or notice period. Frantic employers may well try to get in touch with their errant employees and find themselves ghosted – no response to emails, texts, calls, and no explanation.

• Failed networking

The benefits of networking – through apps like LinkedIn or at specially organised events – are much trumpeted in many workplaces. Networking is seen as an effective way of expanding professional contacts, providing access to industry insiders, fellow professionals and potential clients. But if you exchange cards at a networking event, write a friendly follow-up email suggesting further meetings and never receive a reply, you’ve been ghosted.

• Failed pitches

If you reach out to a prospective client and have a friendly exchange or if someone contacts you with a suggested collaboration, then it is normal to send a follow-up email, which goes into more detail about costings, scope, requirements, scheduling and so on. If you do not receive any reply to your follow-up email you’ve been ghosted. You are left hanging, probably after you have put in considerable effort to your pitch, with nowhere to go.

How to Deal with Ghosting

All of these scenarios beg the simple question: why did communication break down? In an era when it is perfectly possible to communicate at one remove, using emails and texts, rather than facing an awkward phone call, it seems baffling that people would choose to opt out of communicating altogether.

There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that people are stressed at work – overworked, overburdened, up against deadlines. They deal with overload by focusing on essentials and choose not to “waste time” dealing with the niceties of communication. Alternatively, they might simply be people who find it impossibly hard to say no, or to block future avenues of collaboration. They dread the finality of the “shutting down” email and procrastinate, deferring writing it indefinitely. If they leave it long enough, it enters the murky realm of “to deal with eventually” and from there is soon consigned to oblivion. Some people, who tend to be inveterate ghosts both socially and professionally, will abandon any interaction at the first sign of trouble – they prefer to opt for a disappearing act rather than directly confronting difficulties.

It is also possible that our increasingly hybrid workplaces, where there is reduced in-person interaction and an increased reliance on digital communications, are creating a sense of disconnect when it comes to professional relationships. If you have only attended a video interview, interacted with a client by email or networked with colleagues through an app, it is possible that you feel a certain level of disassociation, which you would not experience if you were meeting people in the flesh. This remoteness makes it much easier to be a ruthless non-communicator, who has honed down professional contact to the bare minimum.

Ghosting is obviously extremely rude. It shows little regard for other people and is predicated on an adamant refusal to empathise or imagine how disconcerting or disappointing it might be to be dropped or ignored. Here are some ways to deal with professional ghosting:

• Make it a rule to always answer all emails promptly (set a target of the same day).

• Even if you cannot deal immediately with questions asked or issues raised, you can at least send a holding email, which explains that you have received and noted the incoming communication and you will deal with it in due course.

• If you feel you’re in danger of “forgetting” the emails you have put on hold, put them in a folder and send yourself a reminder to clear the folder at the end of each week.

• If someone appears to ghost you, give them the benefit of the doubt, at least initially. Wait a few days and send a polite reminder. If you still receive no response, move on and try and put the whole issue behind you.

• Take the time every few weeks to review all your incoming communications and make sure that there are no loose ends that have been left unattended. A polite and apologetic email or message will soon redeem the situation.

• Make it a rule that you will always communicate decisions you have made that will have an impact on other people. Whether it is a leave day or unplanned absence or a change of mind about a professional commitment, behave as considerately as you would in the social realm and ensure that everyone is kept fully informed.

• Remember, even when you are communicating disappointing news it is possible to do so kindly and politely. Always fully explain the circumstances behind decisions and sign off with reassurances that you would like to remain in touch, you will be in contact in the future, or you wish the other person well, which will always mitigate any feelings of negativity. No matter how disappointed someone is they will be much more able to move on if they understand the decision.

• If you are an employer or manager, be meticulous about communicating promptly in your workplace. If you set an example of considerate communication to your team or employees, you will be creating a culture where ghosting is not tolerated.


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