Ghosting at Work: What is it and What can you do?

A peek at the dictionary shows two definitions of ghosting:

  1. The appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen.
  2. The practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.

But as so often happens these days, a new definition is entering the urban dictionary, and it expands the meaning from ending a personal relationship to include ending a business relationship.

Ghosting is becoming a real horror story for employers, reports The Washington Post. If an employee has left you with a “no show, no call,” and you are unable to get in touch with them to find out the deal, you have been ghosted. Recruiters at global staffing firm Robert Half have noticed a 10-20% increase in ghosting over the past year. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago noted in December’s Beige Book, which tracks employment trends, “A number of contacts said that they had been ‘ghosted,’ a situation in which a worker stops coming to work without notice and then is impossible to contact.”

From “just bad manners” to “not wanting to have a difficult conversation,” the reasons for ghosting vary. There are many psychological explanations as to why someone ghosts, but at its core, ghosting is avoidance and often stems from fear of conflict. So, at its heart, ghosting is about wanting to avoid confrontation, avoid difficult conversations, avoid hurting someone’s feelings. There is no doubt that technology has decreased the ability of many people to engage in legitimate conversations and the confrontations that sometimes arise in work settings. Using tech, they can simply choose not to respond and, therefore, “avoid the whole mess.”

Part of me hopes that karma kicks in at some point, and people who have ghosted will eventually get ghosted, although that doesn’t solve your problem as an employer. But let’s be honest here: Employers probably started the trend with the Friday pink slip and the escort out the door. Maybe the employer created such a bad environment for the employee that they simply felt no need to say good-bye. Research continues to show there are way too many jerks in supervisory roles.

The rules today are that there are no rules. Temple University thought they had a new head football coach in Manny Diaz. But days after taking the job, Diaz bolted for the University of Miami, leaving Temple without a coach. We see players transferring to different schools at unprecedented rates. On the one hand, we admire people for pursing their dreams–but on the other hand, we question commitment and resilience. This new normal for employee mobility is real and you need to adjust.

It is very challenging to combat the trend with new hires or candidates. You haven’t had time to show you care, to do a stay interview, to show you train and develop. You haven’t had a chance to demonstrate trust and respect. Some emerging strategies are to assign a running mate for the new employee on day one, so they can start building relationships right out of the gate. Another idea is for the boss to out brief each day to give real feedback. In other words, work really hard to get effective communication started as quickly as you can. People do want to feel like they are part of things. Do what you can here. They may not understand everything you’re saying, but they will feel included.

I recognize these steps are imperfect, but they are a start. You cannot change rude behavior, and you probably will not make someone who is conflict-averse want to fight–but you may at least get the phone call back.

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