A Ghost in the Pipeline: What to Do About Disappearing Candidates

A Ghost in the Pipeline: What to Do About Disappearing Candidates

In recent months, many employers have been noticing a trend of candidates and employees “ghosting” them — a term borrowed from online dating that refers to someone dropping out of contact without so much as a goodbye. Recruiters are seeing candidates make it halfway through the hiring process, then simply stop responding to phone calls, text messages, or emails. Chip Cutter, then a managing editor at LinkedIn, was among the first to spot the trend last June:

Where once it was companies ignoring job applicants or snubbing candidates after interviews, the world has flipped. Candidates agree to job interviews and fail to show up, never saying more. 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 realize they’ve quit only after a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach them. The hiring process begins anew. …

Some of the behavior may stem not from malice, but inexperience. Professionals who entered the workforce a decade ago, during the height of the Great Recession, have never encountered a job market this strong. The unemployment rate is at an 18-year low. More open jobs exist than unemployed workers, the first time that’s happened since the Labor Dept. began keeping such records in 2000. The rate of professionals quitting their jobs hit a record level in March; among those who left their companies, almost two thirds voluntarily quit. Presented with multiple opportunities, professionals face a task some have rarely practiced: saying no to jobs.

It’s not only candidates, either; in December, the Washington Post reported that more employees were also “ghosting” their employers, walking out of work one day and not showing up again, with no notice or explanation:

“A number of contacts said that they had been ‘ghosted,’ a situation in which a worker stops coming to work without notice and then is impossible to contact,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago noted in December’s Beige Book, which tracks employment trends. National data on economic “ghosting” is lacking. The term, which usually applies to dating, first surfaced in 2016 on Dictionary.com. But companies across the country say silent exits are on the rise. …

Janitors, baristas, welders, accountants, engineers — they’re all in demand, said Michael Hicks, a labor economist at Ball State University in Indiana. More people may opt to skip tough conversations and slide right into the next thing. “Why hassle with a boss and a bunch of out-processing,” he said, “when literally everyone has been hiring?”

The ghosting phenomenon has been observed in a variety of industries and geographies: Pilita Clark at the Financial Times heard from employers in the UK that they, too, had also seen a rise in ghosting candidates in the past year. Like the US, the UK is experiencing historically low unemployment, posing a unique labor market challenge for organizations. Digiday reported this month that ghosting was becoming a serious problem in the marketing industry: “Recruiters at ad agencies and staffing firms filling roles at agencies and brands’ in-house agencies said they are seeing an increasing number of applicants drop off during the interview process, fail to show up for the first day of work after securing a job or simply quit without giving their notice, never to be heard from again.”

This trend is consistent with what we have learned in our research at Gartner about today’s talent market, both in terms of how tight it is and in terms of how the candidate experience and journey have changed. Not only are employers chasing a smaller number of qualified candidates for a larger number of job openings, thanks to digital technology it is also easier than ever for candidates to apply. When submitting a job application is a matter of one click of the mouse, you can no longer assume that a candidate who applies for a job at your organization actually wants to work there. In the past, candidates researched organizations and roles, identified jobs they thought were good fits for them, then applied for those positions. Today’s candidates perform this journey in reverse, first applying to a number of jobs they may or may not be interested in, then talk to recruiters and choose among the prospective employers who get back to them.

While it may be tempting to write off ghosting as a generational trend, just another example of millennials’ supposedly poor social skills, candidate and employee behavior isn’t predestined. If candidates and new employees are dropping off the face of the earth, that represents a failure in the recruiting process — one that could be costing the company a lot of money. This environment challenges employers to rethink their recruiting strategies around the new shape of the candidate journey: Instead of merely trying to attract as many applicants as possible, successful recruiters are getting better at identifying signs of candidate commitment and creating a candidate experience that motivates the right people to apply and see the process through to the end. (Gartner Recruiting Leadership Council members can read all of our latest research and use our tools to redesign your hiring process to drive candidate decisions.)

On a related note, some commentators have pointed out that employers who are getting ghosted by candidates may be getting a taste of their own medicine, as it is not uncommon for unsuccessful candidates never to hear back from employers. As Quartz writer Lila MacLellan put it last month, some readers of this story may be “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.” Failing to communicate with rejected candidates, MacLellan added, is one of the bad employer behaviors “that may cause the most psychic pain” for job seekers.

Therefore, while employers challenge of ghosting candidates, they may want to make sure their recruiters and hiring managers aren’t engaging in this behavior themselves, Margery Weinstein advises at Training Magazine:

As part of every manager’s training program, there should be instruction on how to both communicate rejection, as well as how to extend a job offer. If a person is management material, he or she should be able to master that lesson, right? All it requires is a simple note, e-mailed in response to the applicant: “Mary, thank you for taking the time to meet with us. Upon further review, we have decided to pursue other applicants. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.”

Is the fear the applicant will e-mail back an argumentative or nasty note? Or that he or she will start calling and hounding the hiring manager? Now that’s the time to ghost them.