In the 1999 film
Office Space, a dark comedy about the mundane conventionality of work, disgruntled software engineer Peter Gibbons tells his new love interest, Joanna, that he hates his job and doesn't want to go anymore.
When Joanna, played by actor Jennifer Aniston, asks Peter whether he is going to quit, he responds, "Not really; I'm just going to stop going."
What was once a funny work of fiction is becoming an increasingly common reality as more employers report being 'ghosted' by job applicants and employees who simply disappear without a trace.
In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited an uptick in ghosting in its December economic activity report, and an array of media outlets – including
The Washington Post, Inc. and
Business Insider – have been publishing stories recently about the pitfalls of the practice.
"Candidates agree to job interviews and fail to show up, never saying more," Chip Cutter, a reporter for
The Wall Street Journal, wrote in an article for LinkedIn that garnered more than 5000 comments.
"Some accept jobs, only to not appear for the first day of work, no reason given, of course. Instead of formally quitting, enduring a potentially awkward conversation with a manager, some employees leave and never return. Bosses realise they've quit only after a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach them."
The term ghosting comes from the world of online dating, where romantic prospects are often dumped without warning or even so much as a goodbye text. But as this bad behaviour spreads from the personal to the professional realm, it raises questions about business etiquette and the shifting balance of power between employers and employees.
Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, who is also director of the school's Center for Human Resources, believes ghosting reflects a change in today's work environment, where employers once held all the cards and often treated hiring as "a commodity exercise".
"When the labour market tightens, the power does start to shift," he says. "I think part of the reason this is so surprising to employers is we've gone through 10 years of the worst labour market for job-seekers, but the best labour market for employers and hirers. You know, you didn't have to do anything, and people were just really grateful that you'd even consider their application. So, the power has changed, and that's changing the story," he says.
It works both ways
Cappelli and Jay Finkelman, a professor and chair of industrial organisational business psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, spoke about ghosting on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM. Following are key points from their conversation.
Ghosting prospective employees is old hat for employers. Companies have been engaging in the practice for so long that it has become perfectly acceptable for them, the professors say. And with the prevalence of online applications, job candidates have gotten comfortable with the fact that they probably won't hear anything back from a company – positive or negative.
"The expectation is that the employers are ghosting you. What's different now is that the employees are starting to do the same thing to the employers," Cappelli says.
"It's not a big surprise. But, frankly, anything that happens to employers makes noise and news; anything that happens to employees doesn't necessarily make news. This is a two-sided problem. It's started by the employers."
Cappelli cites a recent survey by HR firm Clutch that found 40% of employees believe it's reasonable to ghost companies during the interview process. He likens it to putting an item in your Amazon shopping cart but never completing the purchase.
Finkelman says it comes down to reciprocity: "There is a feeling that this is more OK because it's exactly what employers do. Businesses just grind through potential applicants and make determinations and decisions that are in the best interests of their clients and not necessarily of the applicants. And that message gets conveyed through."
To be fair, Finkelman notes, employers simply don't have the time to reassure every candidate in the pipeline. That lack of investment can make candidates and existing employees feel fine about ditching without notice.
'There is a feeling that this is more OK because it’s exactly what employers do'
– JAY FINKELMAN
Both Cappelli and Finkelman say the increase in ghosting is also an indicator of just how tight the job market has become. Unemployment in the US is below 4%, and employers across many sectors report they can't find enough qualified candidates to fill jobs. It's a situation that gives employees more leverage.
"I think there's no question that it's the environment that encourages that behaviour," Finkelman says. "Will it revert back to better manners possibly next year, 2020, when recessions are being predicted again? It will move in that direction inevitably as that ratio of job openings to candidates shifts."
But the unemployment rate doesn't tell the whole story, according to Cappelli. Few employers are interested in hiring someone who doesn't already have a job, so there's a lot of pilfering of employees across industries.
Cappelli calls them "passive applicants", people who aren't necessarily looking but find better offers and head for the door. A majority of people hired last year fell into this category, he says.
"That really starts to change the dynamic a little here, and also the moral question [about ghosting]," Cappelli says. Employees who are approached frequently by recruiters will respond differently – that is, be more likely to ghost – than those who are desperately looking for work.
Finkelman is bothered by what he calls an "underlying lack of concern about the welfare of others" when it comes to ghosting because the job market seems to rule over individual morality.
"I think the changing job market is more likely to influence the frequency with which candidates solicit other jobs or make changes, rather than the behaviour that they engage in when they've made a decision to take another job," he says. "In other words, do they do it in a classy way or do they do it in a tacky way?"
Little consequence for applicants
American workers have grown up with traditional advice about the workplace: Always give two weeks' notice; never burn your bridges; don't speak badly of your former employer. Such platitudes have waning relevance in the ghosting era because there's little consequence for employees and applicants who drop everything and leave.
"As long as there are more job openings, the likelihood of getting caught in this is relatively small," Finkelman says. "And when it does happen, it's satisfying for employers when someone comes back to them and they tell the applicant, 'No, that's already been taken. And if you don't recall, you didn't call us back.'"
However, Cappelli points out that the average recruiter gets 200 applications per job posting. That pile has to be whittled down to a smaller set to be reviewed by a hiring manager. If an applicant ghosts then reapplies later, the odds of being remembered or even reviewed by the same recruiter are slim.
"You shouldn't do it because it's the wrong thing to do, but the idea that you're going to pay a price for doing this is kind of wishful thinking on the part of the recruiters," he says. "How many thousand applicants do they see each day?"
Candidates have also become more savvy about what the professors call "ghost jobs", which are postings for jobs that don't really exist. Some companies call for resumes just to build their applicant pool; others neglect to delete postings for jobs that have been filled.
"Staffing industry analysts and other organisations that set ethical guidelines for their member staffing companies all know that this is an improper practice, yet it still does go on," Finkelman says.
Job applicants catch on quickly and let others know about the bogus listings. It's another aspect of bad employer behaviour that enables employees to rationalise ghosting.
'There’s still no excuse for not responding online, either by the potential employee or the employer'
– JAY FINKELMAN
Just plain rude
Ghosting may be accepted, but that doesn't make it right, Cappelli and Finkelman say.
"I think we can put this question behind us. This is just not a good thing to do for either side," Cappelli says.
"It's not a good thing for employers to do. They do it as a matter of policy because they think it's easier not to respond to all these applicants. And for individual applicants or candidates, it's not a good thing, particularly at the point where it becomes personal, where you have some tie, some conversation with a human as opposed to the applicant tracking software."
Finkelman notes that the anonymity of digital is not a justification for rudeness.
"There is a way to use digital and still be courteous about it," he says. "There's still no excuse for not responding online, either by the potential employee or the employer."
Although it's not very personal, both sides could at least deliver bad news by email. "Not the most ideal and polite way to do it, but people today are not hand-writing notes of regret – and that's on both sides."
In a world with few real consequences for ghosting, a person's moral compass matters more than ever, Finkelman says.
"Depending on the degree of narcissism of that individual and how self-centred that person is, there have to be other values in place to avoid playing the game in a way that may well be reciprocal."