Ghosting: is it worth burning bridges?

Robin Cooper talks about Ghosting in the recruitment industry.

Have you ever been ghosted? It hurts, right? It hurts no matter whether it’s in your personal life or your business life. As a recruiter, I’m used to people not returning calls, but what surprises me is how commonplace this phenomenon has become – and how prevalent.

Here’s my take on ghosting, why it happens, why it hurts and how to deal with it.

We’re human

In recruiting, as a whole, one of the biggest complaints from candidates is: ‘I applied for a role and I just never heard back’. At collective-i we work hard not to do that. We build true relationships with our clients and our candidates. We’re involved and engaged because, above all, we’re human.

But being human means, we also get disappointed when people aren’t polite in exchange. I often wonder what stops people from saying: ‘Really sorry, I accepted another job’ or ‘Sorry, we changed our hiring plans and we’re going with another option’? I don’t have an answer, and it worries me.

Relationships are built on the basis of a fair exchange

Years ago, I was told that one of the best ways to do business development is to give something, not ask for it. You don’t go to a friend’s house and ask what’s for dinner all the time – you offer dinner in return. It’s a two-way street.

Why does it happen?

So I don’t understand why people choose to ghost other people. And I’m not talking about the candidate who chooses not to return my calls because she’s already found another job. I’m talking about the supplier who hasn’t sent me the document I asked for and now isn’t replying to my emails. I’m talking about the old friend I saw six months ago who seems to have forgotten how their phone works.

Why does this keep happening? Has ghosting become the ‘norm’? Are we just too busy? Or is it actually about a lack of personal respect? Here are a few theories.

The issue of time

People are supremely busy. But are they genuinely too busy? I’m not convinced. Relationship transactions must take place every day – it’s unavoidable. We are all juggling through life but while it’s crazy at times for most of us, there must be a sweet spot where we can still be busy and efficient without dropping the ball and burning bridges. How we treat people in business is a reflection of our day-to-day lives. I believe it’s human, and decent, to make an effort to respect each other’s time. And sometimes that means we should take a few seconds to give a slightly uncomfortable but honest reply.

The issue of emotional discomfort

People tend to avoid uncomfortable situations which may cause them anxiety. I once sent a bunch of emails to contacts I had in Singapore. A particular contact gave me 45 minutes of their time during which we spoke about the pitfalls and challenges of working in Asia. I then tried to head-hunt them. They said, ‘Let’s talk on Tuesday; but when I called, they never picked up the phone. The relationship journey didn’t make any sense to me. It was a great opportunity. Did they ghost me because the thought of a new job was too stressful? Did they just decide it wasn’t the right time? I don’t mind, honestly, but I wish they spent less than a minute (even by text) saying ‘Sorry, too busy, and I’ve decided that I don’t want a new challenge at the moment’.

The issue of not being a priority at that time

In the past, I’ve had productive conversations that abruptly ended and then 3, 6, or 9 months down the line they got back in touch and talked to me as if the conversation was continuing from yesterday. I simply wasn’t a priority at that time in their life. They didn’t officially end the relationship as they needed to keep me as a future option in case they needed help down the road. And they did. In this case, the ghosting was about priorities. It’s not great when it happens at the time, but sometimes I do get to find out, in retrospect, what caused it. That’s surprisingly gratifying and, more often than not, it’s enough to keep the relationship going.

The issue of technology  

Is losing human contact a consequence of digital transformation? We’re so obsessed by the instant fix of availability: film, taxi or pizza delivery, swipe left/right on dating apps. Is society evolving in such a way that we have the option to opt-in and opt-out of business and personal relationships when convenient? In my opinion, that’s a very sad comment on civilisation. If technology is taking us in this direction one day there will be no relationships, it will become purely transactional.

Why does it hurt?

Ghosting is frustrating because we feel disrespected and, to some degree, betrayed. You don’t know how to react because you don’t know what happened. And it’s impossible to pick up on cues in the digital world. So instead, I often think, ‘Should I be worried?’ ‘Perhaps something awful happened and that’s why they are not replying.’ There’s no closure and a lot of self-doubts. ‘What did I do?’, ‘Why didn’t I see this coming?’ It’s confusing. By its very definition ghosting is the ending of a personal relationship so it’s not always easy to not take it personally.

How to deal with it

So, should we just build a bridge and get over it?

It’s important to remember that whether it’s a long-term connection or a transaction, relationships are fundamentally about communication. Once upon a time, we sent Christmas cards to clients. Then, one year we had the idea to do drinks with our clients in February instead. This would have given us the opportunity to connect with them, personally, in a way that really helped us build stronger relationships. We didn’t make it happen in the end (ironically, because of time) but my message is clear: it doesn’t matter when (or how) you communicate, as long as you communicate.

Conclusion: my take on ghosting

At the end of the day, relationships evolve and people change. And sometimes relationships – personal or professional – just fade out.

My thoughts on this are: accept it for what it is, don’t overthink it and let it go, because actually, ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’

If someone ghosts you they’ve sent a clear message that they don’t hold the same value on the relationship as you do, and that’s okay.

So what can we do? We can only control our own actions so we should keep our focus forward and realise that we all need to adapt to our ever-changing technological environment – we have little choice about that. But we can choose whether to adapt with integrity and respect, or whether to ignore human connections. I choose the former.


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