A Spooky Lack of Communication:
What it Means When You and Your Boss Ghost Each Other
Ghosting, a relatively new term typically used by millennials and Gen Z-ers in the online dating world, has now emerged in the workplace. Although the term first appeared on Urban Dictionary in 2006, ghosting did not enter popular consciousness until 2015, when Charlize Theron allegedly “ghosted” Sean Penn, her then-fiancé. But what is ghosting?
Ghosting occurs when someone cuts off all electronic and verbal communication with another person to end the relationship between them. Although the expression is primarily used in a romantic or dating context, ghosting can be used to end any kind of relationship, whether that be a friendship, a family bond, or, as of now, a corporate connection. Ghosting in the workplace can occur when an employer does not respond to a potential employee’s application. It also happens when an applicant does not respond to a job offer or fails to show up to an interview. And when an employee does not appear for their first shift or quits without a word and becomes impossible to contact, this also qualifies as workplace ghosting. It is widely thought that this method of relationship dissolution is generally rude and cowardly. Due to the onslaught of new communication technologies such as social media and dating apps, ghosting is at an all-time high. A dating website called Plenty of Fish recently conducted a survey of 800 millennial users, eighty percent of which revealed they had been ghosted. Although ghosting is gaining momentum at an alarming rate, its growing presence in the corporate arena has much to reveal about the workplace itself. And by instituting a few preventative practices, you can ensure that your office will not be haunted by ghosts.
If ghosting is generally considered undesirable, you may be wondering why it is so prevalent in the workplace. According to Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, the emergence of the internet in the tight labor market of the 1990s made it easier for thousands of candidates to submit resumes electronically. Responding to a higher volume of applications became more difficult, so most employers began not bothering. Applicants soon began to follow suit. Cappelli notes that while employers continue to be primarily concerned with obtaining the lowest cost per hire, potential employees tend to ghost jobs for other positions with the same tasks but higher pay. Overall, Cappelli thinks that ghosting creates a transactional hiring process and workplace, which continues a vicious cycle of ghosting on both sides. In short, when both employer and employee are consumed by self-interest, it can be easy for both to forget that they are interacting with real people, not just screens, and that their actions have consequences. Ghosters must beware that their behavior burns bridges and wastes time and money.
Chip Cutter, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, points out that younger people are accepting a lack of response to messages as responses in themselves. While failing to maintain communication with another person may be an acceptable norm in the dating world, especially if one has not been on many dates with the other person and the relationship is primarily virtual, a lack of response is bad form in the workplace. In addition to causing a negative financial impact for the company in question, failing to respond to a job offer or not showing up to work is remembered by recruiters and bosses, hurting future chances of employment.
NBC reporter Danielle Radin draws more clever comparisons between ghosting in the workplace to that of casual dating. She points out how dating apps and social media bring about so many options for a partner that there is no incentive to make a commitment to any one person. Similarly, employers and employees alike ghost because in a tight labor market, they have already found someone else to either fill a position or, in the employees’ case, they have found another higher paid position at a different company. Like dating apps present endless options for a potential partner, sites like LinkedIn present endless options for employment. This contributes to the overall feeling that there is always something better out there, so one should always be searching for the next best thing. This lack of satisfaction brought on by new technologies only fuels the transactional nature of the workplace. If neither boss nor worker feel valued because both are more concerned with personal gain and are perfectly willing to ghost one another in pursuit of someone or something better, the workplace cannot be considered healthy. This kind of paranormal behavior goes against the ethos of teamwork espoused in many workplaces and makes ghosting victims feel less than. In addition to a widespread lack of job satisfaction, however, there is a more chilling reason that employees choose to ghost.
In addition to a low unemployment rate and a hot labor market, there is another reason that many employees choose to ghost—but this reason has slightly more alarming implications about the workplace. According to Emily Sullivan of the NPR news site, many workers ghost because they are disrespected on the job. Sullivan talks about one case in which an employee was not receiving his promised pay. The employee failed to show up to work and caused major financial loss to the company to “make a bigger dent.” However, he said that “he’d never ghost an employer that treated him with respect.” It appears the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” is playing out in the workplace. Since some employers are not treating their workers well, their employees are taking this treatment as an open invitation to retaliate.
Before you call an exorcist to get rid of all your office ghosts, there are a few preventative measures to stop ghoulish behavior that you can institute. Sophia Anderson of Ladders, a career news and job search site, first advises that maintaining open communication with applicants from the get-go is key, as is personalizing the recruitment process with in-depth, face-to-face interviews. Both steps help applicants avoid any confusion as to what their position will be and help them feel more connected to the process, discouraging them from ghosting out of misunderstanding their job responsibilities or feeling uncertain as to whether they have fully secured the position. Anderson also relates the importance of cultivating a positive workplace culture and brand. This combats the problem of employees who ghost because they feel undervalued or are being mistreated. Another tip provided by Anderson is knowing what other companies are offering employees in terms of salary and other perks. This helps companies avoid employee ghosting because they found another position with better benefits and a larger salary. Finally, Anderson encourages management to watch for ghosting warning signs such as sudden failure to return calls to weed out potential phantoms. If you are an applicant or employee, you can begin confronting your discomfort with speaking up in manageable ways.
Although ghosting is rude and cowardly, it has become a norm that can be acceptable in certain situations such as escaping abuse, whether that be in the workplace or any other kind of relationship. However, ghosting is a symptom of deeper conditions lurking within the workplace. These conditions include transactional relationships between bosses, employees, and applicants as well as poor treatment of workers. If these issues are dealt with, ghosting may very well vanish. Pilita Clark of London new site FT.com sums up the problem well. She concludes that regardless of why someone chooses to ghost, workplace ghosting comes off as rude and turning people down, while uncomfortable, is a fact of working life. As an employer, you can take the first steps to rid your office of ghosting by fostering a healthy working environment. As an applicant or employee, you can begin to face your fears and communicate your needs and concerns. Will you say “boo” to ghosting in your workplace?