The terrible manners of employers who ghost on job candidates

C’mon, guys.
C’mon, guys.
Image: AP Photo/Aaron Favila
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My favorite morning radio segment is a series called “Todd & Jayde’s Blown Off.” In it, the pair of intrepid hosts try to help people who were ghosted after seemingly great first dates. On behalf of the jilted party, the hosts pursue long-lost dates to discover what really went down.

“For our first date, she didn’t tell me where we were going,” explained one of the disappeared. “It was to her aunt’s wake.”

Regardless of the embarrassment in store for the caller, the message of the segment is that hearing back is almost always better than being ignored. Yet ghosting is everywhere—and it’s hardly limited to people in the dating pool. On the job front, it’s a pervasive phenomenon that’s demoralizing for anyone who’s looking for work.

A 2013 CareerBuilder survey of almost 4,000 workers found that 60% of job applicants never hear back from potential employers even after they’ve interviewed for a position. I’ve experienced the horrors of ghosting firsthand. Applying for a professorship this year, I wrote essays, provided multiple letters of recommendation, was interviewed by committee over Skype, was flown 3,000 miles to campus, gave an hour-long presentation, met with professors, and was interviewed with the department chair in her office. Then I waited. Two and a half months passed in radio silence.

I finally contacted a member of the search committee, who emailed me the department chair’s response to him: “Tell her we thank her for her interest but she’s not our selected candidate.” After a six-month application process, I thought I deserved more feedback, so I called the department to speak to the chair directly. I am still waiting for a return call.

Brendan Browne, head of talent acquisitions at LinkedIn, has spent a lot of time thinking about ghosting from both sides of the job divide. He says that because it’s fairly easy to apply for a job, employers can quickly become overwhelmed with applications and interviews—making ghosting an easy default option. But he believes employers should focus on making all candidates’ experience in the hiring process as positive as possible. “The employment brand is an extension of the company brand,” he says. “Every interaction you have with a candidate determines how attractive a place it is for people to work.”

Marina Korzenevica, who holds a doctorate in human geography and is currently seeking work as an academic, consultant, and researcher, agrees. “The non-response leaves a bitter feeling,” she says. Even if a potential employer doesn’t give any valuable feedback when they turn her down, “a response changes the way I think about them. It raises the company in my eyes.”

Christina Neubauer, who’s been seeking employment in the Chicago area, appreciated getting an email from the real estate company Redfin letting her know she wasn’t getting the gig. “Despite it being a canned response, it was still far better than silence,” Neubauer says. “It was a strong example of how thorough the company is, how prepared they are. So they got an A in my book. Even if they didn’t hire me.”

Browne suggests that job applicants in the midst of the interview process should try and stay fresh in the minds of potential employers by following up regularly. He says to touch base once a week. But it’s important to keep your tone respectful and polite to avoid crossing the line from tenacious to annoying. “Be thoughtful in your persistence,” Browne says. “Understand where you might be pushing the boundaries.”

Browne believes employers should follow the same hygiene, proactively reaching out to candidates to keep them posted about how the hiring process is proceeding and informing them about potential delays. “It keeps the lines of communication open,” he says.

Beyond the email follow up, what else can a job seeker do? “Channel a lot of that energy into the relationships you may have through a first- or second-degree connection within the company,” Browne says. “Spend the time doing that footwork even before you apply. Relationships matter a lot.” If you’re personally connected with people at the company, you’ll have an advocate there who can push for you. And even if that specific position doesn’t pan out, the connection may well refer you to another great gig.

Slipping away quietly rather than breaking bad news might seem easier for both parties, but the finality of an official rejection—rather than a ghost’s hazy maybe—makes a meaningful difference for job seekers. A definitive answer lets applicants know that it’s time to look elsewhere, which sends them on the path to success. An actual rejection letter I received at the beginning of my career now hangs framed on the wall of my office.

“Dear Robin,” it says, “I regret to inform you that I have hired someone for the position to which you applied.” It was a clear and concise ding for an editorial job, which I was grateful to receive, even at the time. Today, every time I look at that letter, written on photocopied Playgirl Magazine letterhead, I can’t help but laugh—and thank my lucky stars I wasn’t Playgirl material.