People most commonly encounter ghosting while dating, but believe it or not, it’s pervasive in the professional world as well. The fundamentals are the same: Someone expresses interest in you, you respond with enthusiasm, and then, usually after some back-and-forth, they suddenly disappear. You attempt to contact them as many times as your dignity will allow, and when you receive no response, you move on, left with a bad taste in your mouth.
A few years ago, I was obsessed with working at a specific company. I had a connection to the company through a board member, and I was fortunate enough to land three interviews, all of which went extremely well. (Or so I thought.) I sent creative, out-of-the-box thank-you notes after each one, and based on how well things had gone, I was certain I’d secured the job. But all of a sudden, it was radio silence. I reached out to my friend to see if he’d heard anything, and the founder ghosted him too. Five years later, I’m still waiting for a response and wondering what went wrong.
In my coaching business, I constantly hear from clients who have experienced similar things. Whether it’s not hearing back about a job after a string of interviews, or having clients reach out to then disappear, ghosting is an epidemic in today’s professional world. And similarly to dating, when you’re ghosted, you can spend a lot of time and energy agonizing over what you did wrong. This dynamic is hugely draining, and in reality, chances are you did nothing wrong. Maybe your rates were too high, maybe you weren’t a good fit, or maybe the company hired internally. Maybe your point of contact got overwhelmed at work or even left the company. You’ll never know for sure, but you can give yourself peace of mind by not blaming yourself.
If you’ve been ghosted, you know how frustrating it is and you’ll want to avoid doing it to others. Here are some common ghosting situations, and my tips for handling them respectfully.
1. You feel uncomfortable.
If you or your company is hiring for a job, you’re probably interviewing a lot of super-qualified candidates, which means that you have to turn a lot away—including people who had great interviews and who are really personable and excited about the position or organization. It’s never fun to be the bearer of bad news, and it may feel more comfortable to give candidates the “implied rejection” by never contacting them about the status. Or, if you’re a prospective client or partner for a business, and you find that you’re not comfortable with the business’s rate or proposed project budget, it can seem less awkward to fade into the distance, rather than having a frank conversation about money. Lauren Curiotto, founder of nonprofit “Finding the Fabulous, says she “learned that people are easily scared off if your numbers don't match the numbers in their head.”
Instead of ghosting: Keep in mind that it’s always worse to be ghosted than to be rejected. Although rejection hurts, it’s far, far worse to be left wondering what happened—you can spend years of your life on this downward spiral train of thought. Accept that some business conversations are uncomfortable, but that you’ve both invested time into a process, and you both deserve to see it to completion. Don’t be afraid to have matter-of-fact conversations or negotiations about money, either. If you receive a proposal that’s way over your budget, or find out that you can’t afford to hire a consultant after all, don’t be afraid to say so. It’s possible that you can find a middle ground where both parties are happy, but if not, that’s okay too.
2. You’re overwhelmed, either at work or personally.
We’re all human, and we all get busy, tired, and overwhelmed. Maybe your workplace is in the middle of a transition, and you’ve shouldered the responsibilities of multiple employees. Or you don’t have enough help, and you’re running your business all by yourself, and just carving out time to eat and sleep feels like an Olympic feat. You might even be going through something on a personal level: a family problem, a relationship issue, or an illness. Needless to say, ghosting thrives in these kind of atmospheres: when you’re overwhelmed, urgent things get prioritized, and somehow, every day is filled with nothing but urgent tasks from morning to night.
Instead of ghosting: You might be embarrassed that you’re following up with clients or job applicants late, but don’t let that keep you from responding at all. Especially if you’ve been working closely with someone, they may be worried if you just drop off the face of the earth. Giving people a heads up that you’re not quite in a position to respond to them fully yet—but haven’t forgotten about them—can help keep people from worrying about you, on both a personal and professional level. It shows that you value their time and that you understand the terms of your work together.
3. You’re not interested, at least not right now.
Sometimes, you’re approached by someone in a business or networking setting, and you hit it off—but you neglect to follow up with them because you can’t currently envision partnering or working with them. The same goes for hiring people: you may absolutely love an applicant and think she could do great things for your team, but her skills aren’t quite what you need at the moment, or you realize that hiring internally makes more sense. It’s hard to let someone down when you’ve been so enthusiastic about getting them on board—and it’s especially hard if you have been pursuing them. You might think that if you don’t say anything, they won’t have any hard feelings. You might not be able to hire them at the moment, but you don’t want to burn a bridge. Unfortunately, ghosting someone is the quickest way to burn that bridge for good!
Instead of ghosting: Be honest. When you ghost someone, they often assume that they did something wrong, or you hate them for some reason. This probably isn’t true, so take care to avoid this assumption. You never know when you may be looking for a partner or consultant with their exact skill set, so thank them for their interest, and be honest about when you might be able to discuss it further. In the meantime, it’s always worth building your professional network, even if you don’t have the bandwidth to actively pursue anything at the moment.