Americans are enjoying the irony of employers being “ghosted”

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Ghosting, if you haven’t heard, is a common event among dating couples: one person goes radio silent without explanation, after exchanging several messages, or even after a few dates.

Recently the millennial term has come to describe a similar breakup between employers and employees. Across the US, so many people are simply not showing up for job interviews, not responding to job offers, silently blowing off a job they’ve already accepted, or even mysteriously not returning to work one day, that economists at the Federal Reserve Bank took notice. Last week, the term appeared in the Fed’s Beige Book, a periodic roundup of economic conditions around the country, making “ghosting at work” an official US labor market trend.

Reactions to this milestone have been mixed. Predictably, some believe it’s is another sign of our deteriorating ability to be social or halfway civil with each other. Others are simply enjoying the schadenfreude, basking in the ironic twist that it’s employers, rather than job applicants, left wondering why they were so quietly and uneventfully rejected, sometimes not hearing back even after interviews and extensive screenings.

“My 21-year-old daughter applied at over 20 places with help wanted signs since summer for an entry-level or Christmas help position,” one reader in California told Quartz at Work in an emailed response to the ghosting at work story we published last week. “She was interviewed at more than 10. She never heard back from any of them. We live in the SF Bay Area and she was looking at no-experience-necessary, minimum-wage jobs including [at] three local libraries.”

The reader, who asked that her name not be used, tells us her daughter finally did get a job at a fast-food outlet. But even that company left her hanging for two weeks after telling her she’d hear back in 24 hours. A recent survey from CareerBuilder found that more than half of job candidates say they do not hear back from companies at all.

The pain of not knowing

Of all the bad behaviors employers can be called out for, it’s arguably the not knowing what happened after a job application or interview—the deafening silence most of us have heard at one point in a job hunt—that may cause the most psychic pain.

That’s because the brain processes rejection and loss of social status like a bodily injury. But in this case, it’s combined with the potentially crippling anxiety that only complete ambiguity can elicit. Consider the oft-cited electric shock experiment that showed people become more stressed when they’re not sure whether they’re about to be zapped than when they know they will be. 

As with the romantically ghosted, an employer’s silence also leaves you unsure of how to respond or what to take away from the experience. Those who lean toward self-criticism may double down on the negative self-talk, rather than consider the possibility that a bias was working against them, or that the company was simply disorganized, or that it has a toxic culture that taints every department, including HR, or that they simply may never know what happened.

What’s more, we tend to hang onto negative experiences, possibly because humans once needed to keep track of physical threats to stay alive. Given all of that, being ghosted just once by a potential employer can leave an emotional scar.

Signs of change

Last October, Johnson & Johnson, the major medical supply and consumer products company, announced it had launched a new platform for job applicants, one that allows them to track their progress through the system.

Like other companies, it’s aware that ignoring job applicants is a bad look that can come back to haunt the employer, so it took a new tack. “We’re focused on bringing the consumer experience into the hiring experience, because that’s what candidates expect,” Sjoerd Gehring, J&J’s vice president for talent acquisition, told Quartz’s Oliver Staley last year. “We can track a pizza we order from Domino’s—why can’t we give candidates the same ability to track where they are in the hiring process?”

In what can arguably be seen as a indictment of the HR mindset, Gehring—whose company has attracted as many as 1 million applications in a year for 25,000 openings—hired consumer marketing consultants, not recruiting experts, to build the system and make it user-friendly.

If the labor market stays strong, such efforts, part of a more holistic approach to brand awareness, could become the new normal. Meanwhile, at least one optimist out there hopes ghosted employers will understand what the universe is trying to tell them and take some corrective measures: