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Are you haunted by ghosts of corporate past? Ghosting, traditionally a term used in the dating world to describe the practice of disappearing, often after a seemingly good date, text or conversation, has entered the professional world.

It has become most common in recruitment – and in this hot employment market, not only by employers or recruiters but also by candidates – and has also become prevalent in other professional situations (for example, not responding to an e-mail or not showing up to an internal or networking meeting, without the courtesy of letting the other party know).

In this new world of work, where automation and impersonal forms of communications (e.g. bulk emails, auto-replies) are designed to help improve productivity and responsiveness, we need to exercise caution and remember the humans on the receiving (or not receiving) end.

Why people ghost

“A large body of research shows that people tend to be cognitive misers, limiting the use of their finite cognitive resources wherever possible," says Dhushan Thevarajah, chief operating officer of BEworks. "In a world where employers are only connected to you electronically, and you have multiple options on the table, why would you spend your precious time and mental energy engaging about a dead end? The increasing appearance of disappearing employees shows that many don’t see a good reason to stay in touch.”

A few other common reasons people ghost include:

  1. Unintentionally, or not, missing an e-mail in a crowded inbox (or junk folder). As Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times: “One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying. Ignoring email is an act of incivility”.
  2. Keeping options open (e.g., in recruitment situations, keeping people “warm”). Sometimes, people lack the ability or desire to have difficult conversations or deliver negative or uncertain news. However, it is important to acknowledge that most people would take an explicit “I don’t know”, “not now” or “no” and a short-term ego bruise, if it provides closure.
  3. Avoiding impersonal “cold” sales e-mails or calls.

What to do if you suspect you’ve been ghosted

  1. Assume positive intent and follow-up: In many cases, ghosting is unintentional and a result of the overflowing inbox. People generally appreciate a nudge, if it has been a reasonable amount of time after attempted contact.
  2. Break through clutter: Be concise, compelling and specific about the purpose of your reach-out − things such an e-mail subject, bolded key words, and “reply by” dates are all tactics that help improve response rate and timeliness.
  3. Be self-aware: If ghosting feels like the norm, it may be time to change communication tactics by employing a more empathetic approach.

If you think you may be/have been a ghoster

  1. It’s not too late to recover: Even for (very) old e-mails and missed meetings, it’s never too late to respond – people would rather a late reply than to be left in permanent limbo.
  2. Set principles that work for you: Have some guidelines re: how you treat different communications – cold calls, referrals, colleagues, loose connections, et cetera. And as Mr. Grant wrote: “You should not feel obliged to respond to strangers asking you to share their content on social media, introduce them to your more famous colleagues. … If someone you barely know emails you a dozen times a month and is always asking you to do something for him, you can ignore those emails guilt-free.”
  3. Deliberately manage responsiveness: Better inbox organization and time management (i.e. setting aside time for e-mail and other replies) can help reduce the chances of inadvertent ghosting. In recruitment situations, try automating rejection letters – while everyone would like a personal feedback call, it’s not always possible. However, there is no excuse for not providing closure.

If you find yourself too busy, traveling or drowning in e-mails, turn on an auto-reply message that sets expectations around response time frames, and then follow-through accordingly.

“When researchers compiled a huge database of the digital habits of teams at Microsoft, they found that the clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager was being slow to answer emails," says Mr. Grant. "Responding in a timely manner shows that you are conscientious – organized, dependable and hardworking.”

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Leadership Advisory, a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work.

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