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Why Employers Ghost Job Seekers, and How to Respond

A woman looking at her phone while sitting at a table.

​With many people still out of work from the pandemic and others desperate for a career change, the idea of a job seeker "ghosting" a potential employer may sound absurd. Being ghosted by a potential employer seems unprofessional as well. Yet not only is it happening, it's increasing.

When Ghosting Happens

As explained by J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of WorkItDaily, an online career coaching service and social network, the most common form of employers ghosting applicants happens when recruiters reach out to job seekers on LinkedIn or another platform about an open position. But that recruiter may not respond to everyone who returns the message.

What the candidate doesn't know is that recruiters typically reach out to a multitude of candidates, with the assumption that only so many of them will respond. "As a recruiter, I might e-mail about 50 people," O'Donnell said. "And I'll set up calls with the first 10 that get back to me. This is where a lot of that early-round ghosting happens and people get confused."

Ghosting is less prevalent at the second or third stage of the process, after a phone screen or an interview. But it still happens, and it can be incredibly frustrating for the job seeker. It's also irritating if job seekers check the company website and see that the job they interviewed for has been reposted. In those instances, it's typically because the company realized that the job description wasn't drawing the right applicants and they needed to reword it, O'Donnell explained.

Candidates who ghost prospective employers also tend to do so early in the interview process, according to 2019 data from Indeed. However, Chris Thorne, SHRM-CP, HR consultant and SHRM recertification provider with Chris Thorne Consulting, has observed many candidates, particularly from the military veteran community, ghosting employers later in the process.

Thorne, who served for 30 years in the U.S. Navy and does a lot of work with veterans, explained that many of them enter the civilian workforce for the first time in their 30s or 40s. They may have little experience with the interview process or salary negotiations. If they are interviewing for multiple jobs and one of them appears to be close to making an offer, it's not uncommon for these individuals to ghost the other companies.

"The first time they get a hint or a notion from any one of those companies that there's a pathway forward, then they hit the ignore button on all the others," Thorne said. "Sometimes it gets to the point where there is an offer on the table, and then the employer is ghosted. I think the veteran space is kind of unique in how that's happening."

Communication and Compassion

The crux of the ghosting problem is failure to communicate, whether it's the employer or the candidate who is the guilty party. People don't want to have tough conversations and explain why the job or the candidate is not the right fit, noted Kimberly Reeves, a consultant who specializes in payroll, HR and finance with A Better Way Consulting. "It's a total breakdown; people don't know how to talk to each other anymore," she said.

Reeves encourages HR departments and recruiting firms to refrain from ghosting candidates, because of how it can make people feel. When employers can't give candidates closure, candidates may feel like they are being told that they aren't even worth a conversation. "Are people important or are people not important? In the staffing business, people are your bread and butter. They're your client, and they're also your product," she said.

On occasion, employers may decide to ghost a candidate because they feel like rejecting the person outright might open up the company to litigation. One former recruiter who asked to remain anonymous explained that her boss once instructed her to sever all contact with a candidate out of fear of some type of legal repercussion. She asked if she could just send a generic e-mail that the company wasn't moving forward with the person, but her supervisor refused.

While litigation can be a concern, a recruiter should be able to send a rejection letter or make a phone call to a candidate without saying anything that opens up the company to a discrimination lawsuit. Anni Goldberg, general counsel for TriSalus Life Sciences and a former HR professional, believes that using potential litigation as an excuse for ghosting applicants is unprofessional.

"I understand why companies are being more cautious, but I think that's a cop-out," she said. "I think when you lead with compassion and you take the time to let people know, then those are the people that walk away feeling positive."

What to Do When an Employer 'Ghosts' You

Being ghosted in the interview process by a potential employer can be incredibly frustrating. Rest assured, you likely did nothing wrong—the employer either went with another candidate or possibly didn't hire anyone at all. But what can you learn from the situation? And is there anything you can do about it?

Consider the following tips when an employer ghosts you.

Take the initiative. If a recruiter has reached out to you about a position on LinkedIn or another platform and you responded but haven't heard back, it might be worth checking out the company website. If there's a way to apply on the site, go for it. If you're asked to send a cover letter and resume, do so—and you may even want to mention that you had already been contacted about the job, because it shows that you may be qualified for the position. "If you realize you missed an opportunity with the recruiter and they're not messaging you, try another channel," said J.T. O'Donnell of WorkItDaily.

Consider whether you've truly been ghosted. Chris Thorne of Chris Thorne Consulting advises job seekers to rethink what constitutes ghosting in the interview process. In his opinion, if a candidate never hears from a recruiter before it even gets to the initial phone screen, it doesn't count as ghosting. "Understand that in the job-seeking candidate pool out there, an initial contact unresolved is not being ghosted," he said. "So recalibrate your expectations of what … being ghosted, as a term, is in the first place."

Don't be too pushy. If the interview process has begun but you don't hear anything after the first phone screen, it's probably best to just let it go. It may be worth sending a follow-up e-mail after a week has gone by, but that's it. "I wouldn't pursue it too hard," O'Donnell said. "You've been interviewed by the company, and that recruiter has opted not to move you forward. So when you start backchanneling aggressively around that role, it could come back to [hurt your chances]."

Build your relationships. Instead of continuing to pursue the recruiter, O'Donnell recommends trying to connect with other people at the company. If you have any contacts through social media or networking, it's worth reaching out to those individuals and asking what that organization looks for in a new hire. Ask them if you can do an informational interview, and in that conversation, you may be able to glean what it was that kept you from moving forward in the hiring process.

"What you're doing in that moment is saying, 'Look, I get it; I wasn't the choice and that's OK. But I'm investing in a relationship here for the long haul because I want to figure out what it would take to work here,' " O'Donnell said. "That is appropriate. That is the thing that they would welcome, as opposed to sour grapes about the fact that you weren't selected."

Thorne also emphasizes the importance of networking and building personal relationships. He noted that while an interview is what gets you the job, having a strong network is what tends to get you the interview. But it's important to build those relationships even before you begin your job search. "If you aren't focusing on building professional relationships when you don't need them, then you don't have a network when you do you need them," he said. "If you find that you're being ghosted routinely, that means you're not building true personal relationships that could effectively lead to career opportunities."


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