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'Ghosting' Behavior Baffles HR Pros, Hiring Managers

A ghost in a white dress is standing in a doorway.

Ever had a great job candidate who didn't respond to your calls, texts and e-mails about a job offer? Had a new hire who never showed up to work? Or had an employee walk off without a word, never to be heard from again?

You were "ghosted."

Such behavior has left many HR professionals and hiring managers baffled. In today's market, job seekers and workers are in the driver's seat. There are now more openings—6.6 million as of June 1—than there are unemployed people—6.1 million, according to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But no-shows and mysterious disappearances are happening nationally across a wide range of industries.

"For years, candidates anxiously awaited responses from employers after meticulously preparing their resumes and cover letters, attending interviews and then—cricket sounds—nothing," says Susan Hosage, SHRM-SCP, senior consultant and executive coach for OneSource HR Solutions in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Recruiters dodged phone calls and deleted messages from candidates who wanted to know their hiring status.

"Now, the tables have turned."

Peter Cappelli, professor of management and education at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—and director of the school's Center for HR—agrees.

"Employers have been ghosting applicants for decades, so I'd say turnabout is fair play," he says. 

At Trevi Communications Inc. in Danvers, Mass., hiring managers no longer get too excited when the company receives an e-mail from a well-qualified candidate, says Eugene Hunt, principal.

"Now we see every applicant as another move in a game of chance, since the odds are about 1 in 4 that they will go through the process without becoming distracted or disengaged—and disconnect—at some point," he says.

Hunt dismisses the notion that ghosting is about "Millennial entitlement." Instead, he says, it's "more a case of a buyer's market … with myriad opportunities and no consequences if you just walk away from an employer or job offer without ever communicating or engaging."

He also attributes it to "generational inexperience and immaturity, lack of professionalism … testing the waters to see what's out there, even an extension of dating rituals where ghosting is routine. Also, there's probably a perception that there are no consequences to ghosting: No response is a response."

Job Abandonment

Hosage says even experienced applicants fail to return initial phone calls, and candidates who were interviewed ignore repeated messages from the recruiter who extended a job offer. However, she says, job abandonment is the biggest ghosting trend she has seen in the past decade. 

"In the past … the practice was so uncommon, managers were genuinely concerned about an accident or family emergency when an employee failed to report. Today, it is so incredibly common for employees to stop showing up that managers don't even give them the benefit of the doubt," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Hosage says workers may do this because they lack a sense of loyalty or obligation to the company or its managers. Or, she said, it could be because of "a generational trend to avoid conflict." 

"Conflict management is a necessary skill in almost any job, since most people don't work with complete autonomy," she points out. 

Zach Townsend, HR manager at VerifiedFirst, a background and drug-screening company in Meridian, Idaho, recalls a new hire he dubbed "Stacy" who didn't even make it through training. 

Stacy shadowed a seasoned phone-sales associate all day, with the understanding she would later take her turn on the phone. After lunch, the trainer asked Stacy if she was ready.

"Can I listen to you do a couple of more calls first?" Townsend says she asked. The trainer obliged. Three calls later, the trainer handed the headset to Stacy, who said she needed a restroom break first.

The trainer noticed that when Stacy walked away, instead of turning right—the direction of the restrooms—she headed left, toward the exit. Thinking Stacy wanted to use the downstairs restroom, the trainer shrugged it off until 30 minutes had passed. 

"The Restroom Search Party turned up empty," Townsend said. "We never heard from Stacy again."

What HR Can Do

Hire for job fit, Townsend advises. He notes that while Stacy liked the company and its culture, she wasn't a salesperson at heart, and initial training didn't thoroughly prepare her for that role. She didn't want to perform the job and resorted to conflict avoidance.

"We ended up changing our hiring protocol ... to really only hire people who could sell and enjoyed selling for such positions. As a result, our retention has increased dramatically and ...we haven't been ghosted since." 

Employers should reconsider their approach to job applicants, Hunt advises.

"In a hyper-competitive market," he says, "employers today may need to cater to job seekers and meet them on their terms." 

He recommends keeping exchanges relaxed to convey that the workplace is not a high-pressure environment. 

"My tone is friendlier, lighter and more casual: 'We're a cool and friendly group to work with, there's free parking in the suburbs, and, hey—did I mention we have summer Fridays and office dogs?' "

But a change in tone is not a cure-all.

"We still receive applications from well-qualified candidates who seem to be simply testing the waters and will not respond to multiple attempts to engage," Hunt says.

Employers concerned about job candidates ghosting them should give candidates a deadline to withdraw from consideration, Cappelli suggests.

Otherwise, he said, "if the problem is [you] think it's rude, well, now you know how candidates feel."