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Professional Ghosting: A Decision with Hidden Consequences

Why it’s time to stop this scary trend.

Key points

  • Ghosting is an unprofessional but contagious trend emerging among professionals.
  • People who ghost rarely consider the emotional and commercial damage to themselves and others.
  • Ghosting generally occurs due to apathy, conflict avoidance, convenience, or low accountability.
Ryan Miguel Capili/Pexels
Source: Ryan Miguel Capili/Pexels

Interview preparation can take weeks. Finally, the big day arrives. You pass many tests — the handshake test, the first impressions test, and the all-important personality test.

The signals are green. Second interview, third interview, fourth.

Confident of success, you plan the first day. What will you wear? What’s the best travel route? Then silence. You politely follow up. Nothing. Did you have unrealistic expectations? Anxiety creeps in. Is something wrong? More silence. Did you misread the room?

Screaming into a void, only the abyss stares back at you. Yes, you have been ghosted.

We’ve all been there. It triggers the painful initiation into unrequited adolescent romance. The practice of willfully ignoring someone with no follow-up, explanation, or call-back is no longer restricted to the dating scene. It’s common in professional activities such as auditioning, pitching, scouting, tendering, and recruiting.

An Accelerating Trend

This isn’t a new trend but an accelerating trend. The BBC reported how companies increasingly ghost candidates. Seventy-three percent of US employers openly admitted it. Even the volume of Glassdoor interview reviews with the phrase "ghosting" has risen significantly.

This behavior is becoming normalized, justified by busy executives. If other recruiters, agents, and administrators do it, people will understand. Won’t they? It’s not personal, after all. But it’s not professional either.

What’s worse, a poor example is being set from the top. Visier's research found a staggering 95 percent of C-suite leaders admit to ghosting post-pandemic compared to middle-level managers.

A Trend with Consequences

Is one form of ghosting easier than another? Forty-seven percent of women prefer to be ghosted by a date than by an employer. Romantic rejection can be explained by personality or appearance preferences. But employer rejection contains the full spectrum of identity, personality, and intellectual capability.

Ignoring others carries emotional and commercial consequences. Who is immune from social rejection? Exclusion hurts, especially after a relationship has been built and time invested with the ghoster.

Research shows physical pain and social rejection are linked, resulting from behavioral and neural responses. It triggers the mental pain of not being invited to the party or meeting.

Meanwhile, the baffled person who was ghosted is left with confusion and delusion. Clinging to false hope longer than necessary, they suffer the opportunity cost of lost interviews, auditions, pitches, or tenders.

When the penny finally drops, the message is more difficult to accept without explanation — the imagination is far crueler than reality. Frustration can turn to anger which can then be directed internally or externally. This negative experience can contaminate the mindset for the next opportunity.

The ghoster doesn’t escape unintended consequences either. The risk of brand damage is higher than realized. Social media exacts swift punishment on repeat offenders. Just as customers complain about poor service, a fast way to achieve resolution is a Twitter rant.

More and more employees are taking revenge post-pandemic by ghosting the employer. Employee ghosting has risen from 19 percent to 28 percent in 2019 — a trend that started pre-pandemic and will continue as long as talent demand exceeds supply.

Five Reasons Explain Why People Ghost

Of course, rejection says more about the ghoster than the ghostee. But ghosters hold power and fail to appreciate how much their decisions matter. As humans are explanation-seeking creatures, understanding the rationale for rejection can partly alleviate the mystery and misery of this cowardly act. While explanation doesn’t excuse it, the explanation makes silence easier to accept.

As a behavioral scientist who advises organization leaders about the reputational consequences of bad judgment, I identify five reasons that explain the trend toward professional ghosting:

  1. Convenience: When P&0 Ferries fired 800 employees by Zoom, they ghosted each within seconds. While convenient from an operational efficiency perspective, this single decision also destroyed their brand in seconds.
  2. Conflict Avoidance: Nobody wants confrontation, conflict, or communication of bad news. It’s emotionally uncomfortable, creates cognitive dissonance, and causes distress.
  3. Apathy: The ghoster doesn’t care about microaggressions or burning bridges. This typically reflects a degree of arrogance and low desire for long-term affiliation.
  4. Low Accountability: Often, there are no immediate consequences for poor corporate policy. Sometimes it’s cultural, especially in firms prioritizing volume processing over human consideration.
  5. Data Overload: Modern recruiters and agents are deluged with pitches, CVs, and paperwork. The partial ghosting of "If you don’t hear from us, assume we’re not interested" is the new "don’t call us, we’ll call you." It’s a poor excuse as today’s automated systems generate standard, if sterile, replies.

Ghoster or Ghosted? Managing Fallout

The ghoster and the ghosted can adopt several coping strategies to regulate their emotions and limit the fallout.

The Ghosted. Although painful, it’s a case of following up and toughening up. The extent of follow-up is an individual judgment call. It's best to engage until it becomes stressful, debilitating, or limiting practical opportunities. Chalk it up to experience and move on.

The Ghoster. Our actions reflect who we are. There are no decent excuses. Ghosting is lazy and unacceptable. Powerholders should appreciate how much their decisions affect others and use their position with compassion and empathy. People never forget how you treat them — and there’s always a price to pay.

According to the just-world hypothesis, popularized by psychologist Melvin Lerner in the 1960s, good behavior gets rewarded, and bad behavior gets punished. If that holds true, it’s just a matter of time before the ghoster becomes ghosted — and ultimately vanishes from professional life.

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